Molt – Chapter Thirteen

Fourteen Seconds for a Chicken

TUESDAY, OCTOBER TWENTY-EIGHTH. I don’t have any classes today, which is a good thing since I would probably only be embarrassing myself. This cup of cold cafeteria coffee is the one thing that’s keeping me awake at this point.

I’d left my window open all night, and I’d spent most of my sleepless morning continuing to search inside my apartment and outside in the alley. But there was still no sign of Claude anywhere. Oddly, those pigeons on the telephone wires were also absent all morning.

I haven’t seen or heard from Templeton so far today, which is aggravating to no end. But it’s also somewhat reassuring at the same time.

I’m thinking I should call it a day, I should go home and try to get some sleep, but I decide to bite the bullet and have that pre-arranged talk with Professor Nickwelter I’d reneged on yesterday.

I find Nickwelter in his office, reading a magazine and eating a sandwich from the university cafeteria. I knock on the doorframe, and he invites me inside. He sets the magazine facedown on the desk. On the back, there’s an advertisement for contact lenses, and there’s a picture of a Golden Eagle (Aquila chrysaetos). I can only assume this is due to the golden eagle’s extra eyelid, or what is scientifically known as a nictitating membrane. This transparent eyelid closes to protect the bird’s eye from wind shear, or when staring at the sun. Not quite the same as a contact lens, but I’m certain the advertising wiz must have thought it was genius.

“Hello Isabelle,” he says calmly. “Thank you for coming to see me.”

“I’m sorry I didn’t come by yesterday Professor. I wasn’t feeling well, so I went home early.”

“Hmm? Oh yes. Some of us were wondering where it was you’d disappeared to. I hope it wasn’t bad spaghetti again.”

“Pardon?” I’m unsure why it is, but my mind has already begun to forget about the birthday dinner that took place weeks ago, and the transparent excuses used to escape from it.

Nickwelter sits back a little, almost in defense. “It’s nothing. I’m sorry.” He’s still knows when not to push my buttons. Even if some of my buttons are new ones he’s now unfamiliar with.

“This isn’t a bad time, is it?” I ask, for no other reason than the fact that he might want to finish his article.

“Of course not. Have a seat.”

I close the door behind me. Nickwelter’s office chairs are much nicer than mine, with plush cushions and armrests. Perhaps it’s because he likes having guests more than I do. This room is full of history, most of it ancient. It’s the very same office in which Nelson Hatch, the founder of Hawthorne University, used to work out of. There’s a painted portrait of the man hanging on the wall to my right. I imagine this is the way Professor Nickwelter would have looked if he had never smoked a day in his life. A little smoother. A little cleaner. A little more polished around the ornithological edges.

Nelson Hatch was a brilliant man. I admit that I don’t know as much about him as others around here do, Professor Nickwelter being our resident specialist on the subject. I know he was born somewhere in New York, and that he died somewhere here in Massachusetts. From the stories I’ve heard and read, he was not only incredibly intelligent, but he was also a gentle and caring man. He had devoted his whole life to the study of ornithology, and the only thing he seemed to care about more was the education of his students. He was also known to be a bit of an eccentric, and the thing about him that most people still talk about are his famous sayings. He had many phrases that he’d created himself, seemingly for his own amusement, and it was not uncommon to hear his words spoken throughout the halls of the university. Even still to this day, you can hear students quoting him in passing. Such as:

“Looks like the flamingo has gotten the better of you.” Meaning: you’re blushing. The Flamingo’s striking red, pink and coral feathers, as well as its bright yellow legs, are colored by the carotenoids in their food. If deprived of the required canthaxanthin, the flamingo’s feathers will fade to white.

“That’s like fourteen seconds for a chicken.” Meaning: that’s impossible; due to the longest recorded flight for a chicken being thirteen seconds.

And my personal favorite:

“If pigs really could fly, would everyone finally be satisfied?” Meaning: this was more of a question, a musing on the popular saying ‘when pigs fly;’ which seems to only be uttered when somebody was already prepared to be disappointed by something.

If Nelson Hatch had been telling this story, it would certainly contain far more riddled bird analogies.

There are a few paintings of birds lining the walls also, one of them, a Hooded Merganser (Lophodytes cucullatus), being an original piece by John James Audubon himself. When Audubon would paint birds, he would first carefully shoot them with a fine bullet in order to prevent the birds from being unnecessarily torn apart. He would then use wires to prop them up, back into life-like positions. Finally, he would return the birds to their natural habitat where he would use them as the subjects for his work.

I remember being in awe of this picture since my very first day at Hawthorne. It was the first time I’d ever met Professor Nickwelter, and it was one of the last times I thought somebody knew more about ornithology than I did.

The merganser and I are both eyeing the sad-looking, half-eaten sandwich on Professor Nickwelter’s desk. I don’t think I’ve consumed anything but coffee today. An organic Harari blend this morning (a complex, medium-bodied roast with notes of fruity flavor), followed by four or five cups of not-so-fresh Hawthorne cafeteria mud.

Professor Nickwelter removes his reading glasses, places them in his jacket pocket, and then slowly folds his hands in front of him on the desk. He seems unsure of where he wants to start, which is sort of relieving.

I try my best to get this meeting over with. “What did you want to see me about Professor?”

“I’ve made a decision Isabelle.” When he’s nervous, he always seems to speak as though he’s reading from a textbook. “I’m not entirely sure what your reaction will be, however I sincerely hope that this is something that will work for the both of us.”

I get the sinking feeling that this probably has less to do with our respective positions at Hawthorne University, and far more to do with the position we found ourselves in two weeks ago in the back of his car.

His eyes lock on to mine. “I’ve done it. I’ve decided to leave Beth. I want to be with you, and you alone. I realize that now.”

I instantly turn away from him, trying to avoid eye contact. Those eyes of his used to be able to convince me to do just about anything. I look to the hooded merganser for some kind of sign. Something that will get me through this conversation without me losing my highly caffeinated temper. The bird seems to shrug its wings, letting me know I’m on my own here.

“Bella?” he continues. “Did you hear me? I said I realize now that I want to be with you. I told Beth the very same thing last night.”

“How on earth could you do that? Don’t you remember what you told me last time?” He shrugs his shoulders in response, just like the merganser. “You told me to forget about everything that’s ever gone on between the two of us, didn’t you?”

“Did I say that? That doesn’t sound like me.”

“Of course it sounds like you Professor. These back-and-forth decisions and up-and-down lies you tell everyone was all you ever were when we were together.”

“You can’t tell me that what we had meant nothing to you. You told me that I was the only good thing in your life.”

Maybe at the time. I want to tell him I’ve evolved since then. I’ve changed. I’ve met Templeton Rate. But I don’t say anything.

Nickwelter’s eyes tear up. He rubs them with his hands, as though he’s got dust in his eyes, but I can tell this isn’t dust; this is a product of actual emotion. And he’s never been very good at expressing actual human emotion.

I figure I need to say something before this man falls apart in front of me. Before he embarrasses that painting of Nelson Hatch. “I’m not comfortable talking about this right now Professor. And especially not here.”

“Isabelle,” he begins, still rubbing his eyes. “There’s absolutely no reason why we shouldn’t discuss this now.”

I want to say the words immediately, but it takes a good ten seconds before my brain can force my mouth open. “Claude is gone Professor.”

I don’t know what response I’d hoped to receive from him, but he chooses to remain motionless; his face still buried within his hands.

“Did you hear what I said Professor? Claude is gone! I came home yesterday and he’d simply vanished. I don’t want to think he leapt out the window to his death, but there’s no other possible explanation.”

Nickwelter adjusts himself, yet his movement is almost imperceptible. He’s not sure what he wants to say next; he knows how much that bird means to me. When he finally speaks though, his words are not what I expect. “Why do you always do that? You might think I haven’t noticed, but I have. Why can’t you just say my name Isabelle?”

I want to say it’s because I don’t know it anymore, but I realize how stupid that would sound.

What better way to forget a memory then to start with a name?

I quickly come to the conclusion that not only had Nickwelter seen me in the hall with Templeton yesterday, but that he had most likely seen me with him on other occasions as well. It’s also very probable that this is the only reason that he’s made the decision he has: Nickwelter has never seen me with another man before. Not once have I presented myself as being unavailable for him. I’ve never seemed unattainable.

I’ve never changed since the day we met.

But just like with the Greater Prairie-Chicken (Tympanuchus cupido), it’s the female that will choose her mate. It is not the male that gets to choose to be with Isabelle Donhelle in this scenario. Not Professor Nickwelter. Not Templeton. I tell myself that this is entirely my decision alone.

If Templeton hadn’t followed me into The Strangest Feeling that night.

Nickwelter doesn’t wait for a response from me though; he’s still just hanging onto his own last words. “You think I haven’t noticed. But I’ve noticed.”

“Listen to me Professor. All this time, I’d always thought it was supposed to be you that needed to change. I thought that if you’d only left your wife, I could be happy with what we had. If only you’d actually taken me out somewhere in public, I could start to feel like I was special. But I’ve realized now after all this time that it was me that needed to change. It was up to me to evolve. Your leaving Beth won’t make any difference at all.”

“But I’ve already left her. I slept in my car again last night! What are you saying Bella? That I’ve made a mistake?”

“Isn’t it obvious?”

“No, it’s not. I love you.”

“No!” I can’t help but rise from my seat. The chair falls over behind me, and I raise my finger to him, cutting him off. “You do not get to say those words to me! Not now. Not after this long. Not after this much history has already been thrown behind us Professor!” Not after Templeton Rate beat you to it and said the very same words to me just last night.

“Please keep your voice down Isabelle. Someone’s likely to hear you.”

I lift the chair with both hands and stand it back up. Taking a quick peak out the window into the hall, I also hope no one’s passed by to hear me raise my voice.

“Isabelle…I’m sorry for your bird, but do you really think that I deserve to be treated this way?”

If Professor Nickwelter had been telling this story, it would be really, really sad.

“I think you do Professor. I really do. And you know what else? I know what it is that’s gotten you to act this way. I know that you’re not comfortable with the fact that I’m involved with someone else now.”

“Involved. Yes, I heard all about your antics in the library a couple of weeks ago. Tell me, what do you really know about this Templeton Rate fellow?”

“I know enough to make me happy.”

“More than that though. Where did he come from?”

“Schenectady. New York.”

“Does he have a job?”

“He’s a doorman.”

“A doorman?”

“Yes. He works at a hotel somewhere in this city.”

“Well, that certainly sounds believable. But is he really any more your type than I am?”

I give him a moment, to let him think I’m actually considering what my answer will be. To let him assume I care more right now than I actually do. “People change Professor,” I say, folding my arms in front of me. “And none of this is really any of your business anymore.”

Nickwelter ponders our conversation a bit longer. It’s almost as though he’s adding up all of the questions he could ask me right now, and calculating all of the possible answers I could give him in return, figuring out the best course of action. He’s smart like that. And he’s proud too, he always has been. He’s not one to admit defeat so quickly. “Do you remember what happened when someone had found out that you and I were involved with one another Isabelle?”

Of course I do. I remember the whole chain of embarrassing events. One of Professor Nickwelter’s students had found out about our clandestine relationship, and anonymously reported it to Anton Frye, the Dean of Hawthorne University. Nickwelter was given a temporary leave of absence while the school’s board sorted out the details of exactly what the repercussions should be. It wouldn’t have been such a big deal if it weren’t for the fact that I was far and away the top student in the program at the time. This didn’t seem to reflect well on Professor Nickwelter’s grading system, since he was the head of the department at the time, but it also didn’t reflect well upon the rest of the school and its faculty.

Even though our relationship had continued, Beth Nickwelter had forgiven her husband’s adultery, he was admitted back into the university, albeit in a less-prestigious role, and I had graduated at the top of my class.

Now it’s me who holds the coveted position as head of the ornithology department. I know exactly where Professor Nickwelter is trying to go with this, but I still need to hear it. “What are you saying, Professor?”

“I’m saying that was the worst year of my life Isabelle.” He takes a good hard look at the walls around him. “That was the year I didn’t have all of this. This school means everything to me. And it means everything to you too. I would hate to think that you might make a mistake and lose it all like I did.”

From his office window, I catch a streaking glimpse of what appears to be an American Oystercatcher (Haematopus palliatus) sprinting across the lawn. But that can’t be right; oystercatchers aren’t territorial to this area at this time of the year. It quickly disappears into some bushes, and I wonder if I just saw what I thought I saw. Its large bright red bill is unmistakable, but I can only assume that it was something else. Although the way my emotions are going right now, it could have just been a dog off its leash for all I know.

Professor Nickwelter motions to the portrait on the wall to my right. “Don’t you know how embarrassed this picture of Nelson Hatch makes me feel? I can feel him watching me everyday. And I know he would be disappointed by the things I’ve done to his school. I would give anything for the opportunity to have my proper place in Hawthorne back. Anything.”

Running across the lawn now is Jerry Humphries, and I know he must be chasing after the bird that plunged into the shrubbery. It definitely wasn’t a dog, but there should also be no reason for Humphries to be holding any American oystercatchers in the bird sanctuary.

“Are you listening to what I’m saying Isabelle?” Nickwelter continues, seemingly unaware that I was focused on something other than him. “Don’t you realize the price you might pay for getting involved with Templeton Rate?”

I open the door to leave. “You and I are finished here Professor. You need to go back to your wife. You’re not going to survive many more cold nights sleeping in the back of your car and living on cafeteria food.” I take a step out into the hall, but I turn back to him before leaving for good. “And I really hope you weren’t threatening me Professor. You can’t afford to fall any further than you already have.” Defiantly, I slam his office door behind me. I can hear the hooded merganser rattling against the wall. I also hear what can only be Nickwelter’s fist slamming onto his desk, and then pushing his lamp onto the floor. The ceramic base smashes. The bulb breaks. And I keep walking away.

I can’t help but wonder what it is that Nickwelter will tell his wife, should he return home tonight. I wonder what I’ll be able to say to him the next time we talk, and how long I’ll be able to avoid that future encounter.

NEXT CHAPTER

Molt – Chapter Twelve

The Molt

MONDAY, OCTOBER TWENTY-SEVENTH. I leave some food in Claude’s dish before I go. I grab my bag and exit out onto Newbury Street. It’s a sunny morning, but the freezing cold of October has definitely set in. There hasn’t been any sign of snow in Boston since that first day two weeks ago. There’s no trace at all of the snow that had blanketed the city that one day, but the events that unfolded on that same afternoon are still extraordinarily frozen solid in my memory.

My daily migration has begun. As I leave my apartment, I can’t help but notice the wedding dresses in the window of the shop to my right. It’s no surprise though; I notice them every morning. These dresses used to make me feel lost, as though they were representing something much too far out of my reach. I thought that the portraits behind the glass were all frauds; the false brides and grooms were laughing at me from some made-up fantasy world. Of course, I’d always felt that they still had more than I did. Until Templeton came along that is.

I dodge a couple of yuppie moms pushing over-sized baby carriages and I find the same feelings of pre-Templeton loneliness racing through my head all over again. But just the thought of him helps me to smile again.

The popular orange Boston Duck Tours bus motors slowly along Newbury Street; its cartoon duck painted on the side splashing in a puddle, and its passengers inside pressed against the windows with cameras ready. The duck reminds me of the fact that drakes are among the few birds with a penis. The male organ of the Argentine Lake Duck (Oxyura vittata), a bird that only weighs about a pound, is a corkscrew-like appendage that becomes a foot long when fully erect. The female has a long corkscrew vagina, spiraling in the opposite direction. This bird is a riotously promiscuous species, and the drake’s extraordinary organ has evolved in such a way to displace the sperm of the female’s earlier mates. This cartoon duck reminds me that Templeton and I have made love a dozen times in the last two-and-a-half weeks. The feeling is exhilarating, when I think about how lucky I am to have him.

I smile for the flashing cameras, whether I’m the intended subject for their photos or not.

If these tourists had been telling this story, they would assume I’ve always been this happy.

To my left is the Starbucks, and I go inside to grab my morning coffee. Most of the staff knows me by name now, but none of them look the least bit familiar to me. Much like students, baristas are simply baristas. On the counter, I spot a birthday card standing upright, and I can read what’s been written inside:

To Sarah, Happy birthday! Hope you like the bracelet, please wear it.

I note the lack of haiku in the greeting. Once I reach the front counter, the barista greets me with a good morning. Her nametag says ‘Sarah,’ and I notice the absence of a bracelet around her wrist. I can’t help it, but I instantly do not wish to deal with this person. I let the man behind me go ahead while I wait for the next register over to open up. I’ve been in a good mood for over two weeks now, and I don’t need it spoiled by someone so ungrateful.

With a grandé Guatemala Magdalena in hand (an elegant and intriguing blend of gentle spice flavors), I head around to the back of the building where my car is parked. I can see Claude in the third-story window, watching me from his cage. “Bye-bye Bella,” he calls out through the partially open window.

I almost respond, but stop myself before I do. He’s looking directly at me, but there’s something that seems off in both his motions and emotions. I don’t know, it’s almost as if his head is leaning a little too far to one side. I know Claude well enough to pick up on the subtleties. I wonder if he ever longs to fly, like all of the other birds he can see out that window. Sometimes I catch him staring at the Rock Pigeons (Columba livia) perched on the telephone wires across from him. Sometimes the pigeons are chased off and replaced by American Crows (Corvus brachyrhynchos). All of those birds with two wings that can simply come and go as they please. I don’t believe the thought has ever crossed my mind before now, but it seems like it would be an obvious assumption; does Claude have the ability to yearn?

I open the car door and toss my bag in before responding, “Bye-bye Claude.” I get in and I drive out of Public Alley 434, trying my best to not worry about him any longer.

I haven’t been back to Templeton’s apartment since that first awkward morning, but he’s spent the night at my place a few times since then. He had seemed very interested in Claude, but I felt as though it was forced; as though he understood how important Claude was to me, and he felt he had to act accordingly. I’ve only really known Templeton for a short time now, but I already know that’s not in his character.

He wouldn’t display false emotion.

He wears his heart on his sleeve.

Templeton Rate doesn’t pretend to be someone he’s not.

At the intersection of Exeter and Newbury Street, I sit in the shadow of the John Hancock Tower to my left. The Tower makes me uncomfortable, and it always has. I think that it’s all of the reflections off its sheer glass façade that make me dizzy. To my right, I can see the fifty-two floors of the Prudential Tower, and I think back to my conversation with Templeton when I told him my dreams of flying. I get lost for a moment as I see a pair of Ring-Billed Gulls (Larus delawarensis) take off from the rooftop and hover for a moment in the air before they flap their wings and disappear from sight behind another building. I just know they were sitting there, waiting for me.

Because that’s the moment that I’m most jealous of.

I’m still dreaming as the car behind me honks its horn.

I make a right turn onto the busy Huntington Avenue, and fight with the rest of the Monday morning commuters. From there, it’s a right onto Parker Street and then a couple of short turns more before I’m once again parked in my own reserved spot within the Hawthorne University staff parking lot.

In terms of migratory routes, it’s a pretty short distance; fifteen minutes to work in the morning, and usually ten minutes to get home in the evening, traffic permitting. Although, where birds will make their migratory trips only a couple of times a year over large distances of thousands of miles (the longest of which is the Sooty Shearwater (Puffinus griseus), which makes an annual round-trip of roughly forty-thousand miles), my migration happens daily, nearly every day of the year. Still, sometimes I wonder who’s got it tougher: me or the sooty shearwater.

I pull into the parking lot, upset that my coffee is already lukewarm. But when everyday follows the same routine, it’s always going to be lukewarm. Thankfully though, my life has felt much less nauseatingly monotonous since Templeton Rate along.

I guess you could say Templeton and I have been dating for the last two weeks. As odd as our pairing might seem, I still can’t put my finger on what it is that makes me feel the way I do about him. Maybe it’s something akin to a pheromone-type of effect. I don’t consider myself to know much about the details of pheromone attraction. Although rampant in the animal kingdom, pheromones are mostly non-existent in birds, since in general, birds have a very poor olfactory sense. Corkscrew penises aside, their mating is done primarily through song and dance.

The only conclusions I’ve drawn so far, is that I’ve found some absurd emotional connection to Templeton’s smoldering dark brown eyes, that fantastic mop of hair and the cigarette breath; they’re the very same traits that Claude had. But Templeton is not the same person Claude was. He’s not about the happy birthdays or the scheduled make-outs. He makes me feel special. He makes me a better person. He encourages me to embrace change rather than resist it.

If he hadn’t made me feel special.

Templeton is not Professor Nickwelter; he’s not trying to keep our relationship hidden and he doesn’t buy me wristwatches and other such frivolities in order to keep me interested. He’s not about the charitable birthday dinners or secret rendezvous. I feel at ease around him. I no longer have to look for comfort in the images of birds. He sees things around him, and he sees things in me, that even some birds with their incredible visual acuity would have trouble spotting. There’s a reason he found me on the bus that night and it’s the very same reason I need him in my life.

If he hadn’t found me on the bus that night.

Templeton’s academic advancements are also amazing. He’s a natural genius, and the vast amount that he’s learned in such little time makes me proud to have him as a student in my classes. His current papers are a vast improvement over the original report that had appeared mysteriously on my desk just weeks ago. Whether he’s written about wing and skeletal structure, flight function, muscle growth or the respiratory system, they’ve all been meticulously detailed, and they’ve all received Professor Donhelle’s familiar blue checkmarks. His work had been nothing short of flawless and immaculate. His understandings seem far beyond any other student that has ever sat in my class. I have yet to question him about those first random scribblings he’d given me, though I’ve convinced myself that those reports were merely terrible on purpose. Surely the intimate knowledge that he’s recently shown suggests that Templeton Rate has a well-educated background. There’s no possibility that a comprehensive familiarity such as his could be faked.

He’s certainly not the man I had originally assumed him to be. His decision to switch from sticks of charcoal to ballpoint pens is almost evidence enough.

I lock my car and head for the ornithology department faculty entrance. I envision Templeton at the door smoking a cigarette as he waits for me. But instead, all I get is Jerry Humphries. His ugly brown car is parked in front of the entrance, its trunk open wide and one of the rear wheels up over the curb, buried in the grass. It looks like there’s another shipment arriving that I was unaware of. I think for a moment about talking to whoever’s in charge of scheduling, but then it occurs to me that it’s actually Humphries himself. While he should have notified me in the first place, I’ll gladly avoid making an issue out of it if that means not having to speak to the dirty little man face to face. But unfortunately, there’ll be no avoiding him this morning.

“Good morning Bella. How was your weekend?” He’s wearing his famous weathered brown leather trench coat, and fumbling with a large cardboard box, sloppily sealed with an over-abundance of orange electrical tape. His fingers are gnarled; the nails chomped down to the cuticles. His face is all patches of hair, some thick and some thin. Nose hairs spring forth in every direction. And his head is a really odd shape; like a rejected potato at the supermarket that you’ll always find lingering on its own in the bottom of the bin after all the others have been taken. The one that will eventually get thrown out because it’s been sitting by itself for far too long.

If Jerry Humphries had been telling this story, I’m certain it wouldn’t find a very wide audience.

I hear his wretched morning greeting, and I wish I could slug him in the stomach. Could I do it? Would it really be so bad to just hit someone I dislike so intensely? It certainly wouldn’t be something I’d ever thought of doing two weeks ago. I hear Templeton’s voice in my head insisting that I embrace change.

I can change, can’t I?

“My weekend was fine Jerry.” Maybe I’ll hit him tomorrow. “And you?”

“Great! Went up to Portsmouth. Did some hunting. I’ve got enough meat for a month now! You know, you should really come with me one of these weekends.”

“I really don’t think so. Hunting’s not exactly my thing.” I hope that will be enough to end the conversation, but I know it won’t be.

“How about church then? Why don’t you come along with me next Sunday?”

For reasons unknown, Humphries has asked me to come to church with him a number of times. It surprises me that someone so vile can actually be putting his faith in something. A glimmer of light from the rearview mirror’s dangling bent cross catches my eye. It doesn’t surprise him at all when I decline his offer yet again. “I didn’t know hunting in Portsmouth was legal?” I ask him. I hope it’s enough to soon find an end to our conversation, since I feel sick to my stomach just continuing this exchange.

“Well, it’s like anything; you’ve just gotta know where to look for it.” He is such a creep.

But then, like divine intervention, Templeton comes out through the doors. He seems to walk outside with a purpose, and is a little surprised when he sees me. I’m not sure why exactly, as I show up at the same time every morning. Punctual like the Common Cuckoo (Cuculus canorus), striking every hour on the cuckoo clock.

“Greetings, Professor Donhelle,” he says.

Humphries thinks he’s doing kindly favor by introducing us; “Bella, you know Templeton Rate, don’t you? He’s a student here.” But I know there’s nothing kind about the rat. “Templeton was just helping me unload some of these boxes.”

“Oh, we’re quite familiar, Templeton says. “Isn’t that right, Isabella?”

I don’t correct him anymore when he calls me Isabella. I’m not sure what he’s expecting me to say in response, but I show him a sign of approbation. “Well, that’s very nice of you Templeton. I’m sure Mr. Humphries appreciates the helping hand.” As though I was his mother and he was five years old and helping unload the groceries.

“I just like to do my part.” He turns back to Humphries, who’s eyeballing us as though sensing that something else might be going on between Templeton and I. But Jerry Humphries has never picked up on subtleties very easily. “Is this the last one then?” Templeton asks him.

“That’s right.” Humphries hands him the box. I hear something rattling around inside. It sounds like nails and broken glass.

“What have you got here anyway?” I ask Humphries. “I hope there aren’t any birds taped up in these boxes.” I might sound as though I’m joking casually, but I really just want to make sure.

Humphries closes the trunk of his car, and his Jesus fish falls off, clattering off the curb and onto the pavement. “Just some lab equipment. You know, stuff of that ilk.”

Templeton has already gone back inside the school with the last box. I decide it would be best to follow him immediately, and not leave any parting words for Humphries. So when Humphries turns away and bends down to pick up his metal fish, I use that precise moment to exit, without another word.

I didn’t expect Templeton to hold the door open for me; I would never mistake him for being such a gentleman. But at the very least, I thought he would have waited long enough for me to catch up. I have to run after him through the faculty halls, careful not to spill my coffee on the way. “Whatever made you help Humphries with these boxes anyway?”

“I was just walking by and he asked for my help. That’s all.” He doesn’t stop walking, and I’m at his heels following along behind him. “I get the feeling you don’t like that guy very much,” he calls back to me.

“That’s an understatement.”

“You didn’t fuck him too, did you?”

I stop in my tracks. “Jerry Humphries? Templeton, please! That man is disgusting.”

Templeton stops now too, and he turns back to face me. “Well, you already slept with Nickwelter. How am I supposed to know?”

“I had a life before you came along Templeton.”

“Really?”

“Well, what do you think?”

“I think you had an affair with one of your professors and your only other relationship has been with a one-armed bird. You can’t be satisfied with just coming to this school every damn day and teaching these morons the same inane bullshit semester after semester after semester, can you? Don’t you want anything more than that? Don’t you want to leave something important behind you when you’re dead and gone?”

He looks at me, holding the box in his arms and waiting for some kind of response. I keep any answers from him though, and stand in awe of the things he’s just said. What’s come over him? And why is he talking about my demise so soon into our relationship?

Templeton’s arms slouch down, realizing he’s over-stepped his boundaries. “I’m sorry,” he says to me for the first time ever. The contents of the box seem to apologize too, rolling in unison to one end. “I don’t know what makes me fly off the handle like that sometimes.”

“It’s okay,” I tell him. As hard as it is to hear it said, I think it’s harder to actually admit to myself that his words are mostly true. “Maybe you just need some coffee. I find it helps to calm my nerves.”

He sets the box down on the linoleum floor of the hall, right outside the south laboratory. “I think I just have a hard time believing you slept with that guy, is all.”

“I shouldn’t have told you the details about my past relationship in the first place,” I say to him. “It’s just that…well, we all have things we’ve done in the past that we later regret, don’t we? It’s hard to simply wipe the slate clean.”

“It’s called change Bella. It’s what we all do. And it’s inevitable, so you’d better get used to it.” Templeton has a way of really making me think about every last word he says. Then he usually follows it up by changing the subject. “But don’t dwell on it right now, okay? Let me walk you to your office.”

I agree, and I think about his one-armed bird comment from a minute ago. “I hope you know birds have wings, and not arms, right?”

Templeton smirks. Had he set himself up to be proven wrong on purpose? He looks down at the box on the floor, and suggests leaving it there for Humphries to deal with. Taking the coffee from my hand, he gulps some down and squirms a little. I thought that by now he’d be used to how much sugar I like. “You know, the only reason I was even helping that guy with his boxes in the first place was because I was waiting for you to show up this morning.”

“What? Really?”

“Really.”

“You were just waiting right there at the door?”

“It’s true.”

So far, my relationship with Templeton has not been much more than sex and homework, so it’s satisfying to engage in what feels like an ordinary boyfriend-girlfriend squabble. He was right when he said it though; the only real relationships I’ve had so far in my life have been my affair with Professor Nickwelter and the feeding of my invalid parrot. I’m just glad I never mentioned the sad tale of kissing Claude in high school to Templeton. Admittedly, that’s not much to show for in the last twenty-nine years, but would my life really have been so different if Mrs. Wyatt had not made that heartless decision?

If I hadn’t been rejected from the Doneau High basketball team.

I was still lost in Templeton’s eyes when Professor Nickwelter came around the corner. As usual, he wins the contest for the worst possible timing. He stops in his tracks, no doubt in stupefied wonder as to what Isabelle Donhelle was doing longing after this student of hers while she had just put the moves on Nickwelter in the back of his car only a couple of weeks ago. He fidgets, adjusting his collar nervously, unsure of his next move.

Templeton turns to see where my eyes are fixed. He and Nickwelter stare each other down for a moment. I visualize a California Condor (Gymnogyps californianus) and a Golden Eagle (Aquila chrysaetos) challenging one another over who gets dibs on a mountain goat carcass. Of course, I imagine Templeton as the golden eagle, but I’m now rethinking my role as the mountain goat carcass in this scenario.

Before any such bloodbath can occur however, I break the silence by accidentally dropping my coffee on the floor. At least I think it was an accident. “Oh! Good morning Professor Nickwelter.”

I can tell he doesn’t know what he could possibly say to me right now that would make things any less awkward. “Good morning Isabelle.” My only hope is that he’s at least thinking of his wife. “Do you think I could speak with you at some point today? I have some important matters to discuss.”

“Of course Professor,” I say, making sure I’m not getting any coffee on my shoes. “I’ll come see you when I have a moment.”

Nickwelter takes one last glance towards Templeton, eyeing him up for just the briefest of moments, before turning back to me. “Very good. Thank you.” Then he turns and walks away. It’s a sad exit, one that leaves a hurtful, burning sensation in my heart.

Nickwelter disappears from sight, and I look down at the mess of coffee on the floor. The plastic lid had popped off upon impact, and the creamy brown liquid slowly spreads out before me. I see my reflection, as well as the reflection of the ceiling lights above me. Templeton’s dark silhouette is in there too. Like staring up at clouds in an effort find imaginative shapes, the coffee seems to take on an entirely new form; it begins to resemble a dense flock of birds. Flying across the cold hall floor, migrating towards Templeton Rate.

It reminds me of a birding expedition I was on a few years ago. We were in the marshes of some backwater Massachusetts town, studying the habits of the American Bittern (Botaurus lentiginosus). The sun was just rising, creating a beautiful orange and pink pastel sky. From across the marsh came the sudden and explosive sound of a gunshot, probably from duck hunters who were up even earlier than we had been. The sound of the shot seemed louder than the booming cry of the bitterns, which flew off immediately. What I remember the most was the sight of the siege of bitterns; the idyllic sky had been overcome by this murky outline of the birds. They had lost all individual shape, and became one single black sheet against the sunrise. It was, and still is, surprising to me how these birds could possibly find the room to flap their own wings in and amongst one another.

Templeton’s own recent report on the very same bitterns I had once studied was impeccably thorough and insightful, from detailing its distinctive bellowing call to the bird’s extraordinarily instinctive ability to camouflage itself amongst marsh reeds.

I look up from the floor to Templeton, who seems to have been watching me closely the whole time. “I can’t believe you fucked that guy,” he reiterates with wonder. As intelligent as he is, sometimes he’s still in need of help when it comes to social interaction.

“I’d better let the janitor know about this mess,” I say.

“Don’t worry about it,” he tells me. “I’ll get Humphries to clean this up.” Templeton has a knack for always finding the best possible solution. I don’t want to know how that request might be initiated, so I don’t ask.

Templeton convinces me that I need to get my things together in order to prepare for class this morning. I ask if I’ll see him again before the day is through, but he says that he doesn’t have class today. He’s got a shift at the hotel, as well as some personal errands to attend to. He tells me he’ll be by later, and maybe we can meet up for lunch.

“That’s fine,” I say as I turn around to leave.

“Hold on Bella. Can I ask you something?”

I can’t help it, but memories of The Question instantly take over any thoughts I already had inside my head. “Of course. What is it?”

“What are you doing for Halloween?”

“I…I’m not sure. I don’t usually do anything for Halloween other than throw candy out my window to kids in the alley. Except for the mini Three Musketeers. I keep all of those for myself.”

He stares at me with a blank look in his eyes.

“What?” I ask.

“I’m sorry,” he says again for the second time now. “That’s pretty pathetic.”

“Well, I’m not going to sit at the front door all night and get depressed when no kids come by.” Which is exactly what I did my first three Halloweens in Boston. “Why do you ask? Do you have something better on your mind?”

“I usually go up to Salem for the Haunted Happenings festival. I was wondering if I could borrow your car.”

That certainly wasn’t where I thought this conversation was headed. “Did I hear you right? You want to borrow my car?”

“That’s right.” He looks at me with another blank expression, this time wondering why this wasn’t what I had expected to hear. “Did I say something wrong?”

I reiterate, and speak slowly, hoping that he’ll be able to understand what I’m trying to get at. “You want to borrow my car so you can go to Salem for Halloween?”

“That’s correct.”

“By yourself?”

“It’s what I do every year.”

“And you didn’t think of asking me to come with you?” Could I possibly ever date someone that isn’t either twice my age or half my IQ?

“I’m sorry,” he says again. “I suppose I’m still getting used to this whole situation.”

“Situation? You mean our relationship?”

“Let me start over. Would you like to come with me to Salem for Halloween?”

“Thanks for the invite. But Salem? For Halloween? Isn’t that a little too…much?”

“Are you coming or not? You can bring your parrot and your Three Musketeers with you if you want, but I’m not going to ask a second time.”

“Do I need a costume?”

“Have you ever celebrated Halloween before?”

“To be honest, it’s never been one of my favorite holidays. I don’t think I get it.”

“It’s kids dressing up as things they’re scared of and it’s complete strangers giving them candy. What’s not to get?”

The strangers with candy is the part that my parents tried to keep far away from me when I was growing up. It didn’t make any sense to me then, but I can see their point now.

“I know what really scares you about Halloween,” he says. “It’s the costumes, isn’t it?”

“Costumes don’t scare me.”

“No, I know. But it’s the change they represent.”

He was right, wasn’t he? It always comes down to my fear of change.

If I hadn’t run through the hedge at Saint Francis Elementary.

“Can’t I just be myself?” I ask.

“If you’re coming with me, you’ll need a costume.”

“All right,” I decide. “I’ll come. But the whole idea really creeps me out, you know? Salem seems like the scariest place you could go on Halloween.”

“That’s the point, isn’t it?” He turns around to leave me without so much as a kiss or even one of his infamously unromantic high-fives. “I’ll see you later then.”

I look back down at the coffee on the floor which now seems to be taking on a much more sinister shape. I convince myself that it’s just my mind playing tricks on me. The puddle creeps to the edge of the box, and quickly begins turning the cardboard a dark, wet color. I decide I’d better move the box myself before anything of value is ruined. The south lab is sure to have some paper towels, and I decide to clean up the entire mess myself rather than trust someone else to do it. I unlock the door and flick the lights on.

The overhead lights come on, one by one. They illuminate the front of the laboratory all the way to the back. The center of the room has been cleared out, and there are boxes and crates piled up along the walls and on top of the tables. There are some unidentifiable bits and pieces of equipment strewn about, but I don’t see much else of interest. Until I spot the wooden planks at the back of the room, that is. Some strange framework of boards is being constructed.

It’s probably been six months since I’ve stepped foot in the south laboratory, but this is certainly not how I remember it being maintained. It seems larger than I recall, but it’s most likely just the empty space playing a trick on me. I’m beginning to question the extent of the fire in here that closed the school down for one weekend a month ago.

The back of the room smells like a lumberyard. This wooden frame must be as tall as it wide; I’d say fifteen to twenty feet, almost a perfect cube. Tools and wooden boards are scattered around the floor. There’s a table saw surrounded by mounds of sawdust that nobody seemed concerned about sweeping up. My mother would have a heart attack.

I don’t find any paper towels anywhere, so I pick up the box from the hallway, and add it to the mountainous pile forming on the lab’s tables. Something is going on in here that I wasn’t told about. I’ll question Humphries about it later.

On my way out of the room though, I spot a single feather blowing around in the corner of the lab. It reflects the lights from above, giving it a kind of glow. There’s an air vent on the wall that has caught the feather in a gentle, spinning pattern. It seems so lonely, as though it’s lost its way. With the south lab’s close proximity to the school’s bird sanctuary, it’s not uncommon for feathers to find their way around these parts, but this one has caught my unyielding attention. At first, it doesn’t appear overly special, but I still feel compelled to investigate. I take the feather into my hand; it’s soft like an ordinary down feather, but when I rub it between my fingers, the tip disintegrates into a dusty powder, indicating it must be a pulviplume. Between its size and the chestnut coloration, I believe it must have come from a Goliath Heron (Ardea goliath). Herons don’t have the common preen glands from which most birds obtain oil to condition and waterproof their feathers. Pulviplumes such as this have evolved in certain birds like the heron to create this cleansing powder, and they will comb it through their feathers with their toes. But goliath herons are only found in Africa and parts of Asia, and we don’t have any in the bird sanctuary that I’m aware of. I let the feather float back to the floor and as I do, I hear its croaking call: muffled, as if coming from somewhere in my mind. I dismiss it, assuming I’m mistaken, since I have to get going to my first class this morning.

It’s a few hours later now and I still haven’t seen any further sign of Templeton today. I’m sitting in my office alone, eating my terribly simple tuna sandwich. Every day, and with every bite, I feel more and more like the endangered Hawaiian Shearwater (Puffinus newwlli), living on a steady diet of tuna. The ironic part is that the shearwater will travel in flocks when they hunt for their lunch, while I eat dreadfully alone in my office. Somehow at this moment I feel more endangered than the Hawaiian shearwater, if that’s at all possible.

When I arrived at my office this morning there was another ‘MOM’ note from Steffen James taped to my door, no doubt torn once again from Jerry Humphries’ notepad. I’d never called my mother back three weeks ago. Now the note is staring at me from my desktop, reminding me that I’m not quite the thoughtful daughter she wished she’d raised. Why on Earth would she call me at the school again when I was home alone last night?

There’s something within Steffen’s handwriting that reminds me of the self-inflicted mess I’d made of myself in the university library two weeks ago. Some of the staff has no doubt heard all about it; there’s an awkward quality to Steffen’s M’s that seems to want to avoid bringing up the subject with me. I would think that he’d know me better by now, and that there’s no stinking chance I would want to be discussing my sexual exploits with anyone I see on a regular basis.

I consider heading down to Professor Nickwelter’s office as I’d promised earlier, but then thoughts begin to race through my head. I start to wonder what it was that was on Nickwelter’s mind earlier this morning. I wonder what we might discuss should I sit down across from him. I imagine he’s probably heard about the library fiasco as well. I imagine him belittling me. I can hear him mocking me. I can see his eyes tearing up and I wonder how this man can say these things to me when it’s so obvious he actually cares so much for me still. Is this how I deserve to be treated? Even if it’s only in my imagination?

I used to worry about the kinds of things that people thought of me, especially when I was questioning my own actions. Did Cindey Fellowes ever wish that it was her kissing Claude instead of me? Did Antonia ever think that I’d abandoned her when I left Ville Constance? I thought that once I was older I would stop caring about whether others judged me or not, but isn’t this when it really matters? When I’m a professional adult with a respectable career?

Am I second-guessing my relationship with Templeton Rate? Am I making a mistake or just being foolish? Maybe I shouldn’t let him try to change me. Then again, maybe I’m not wrong about anything; maybe I’m reading too much into everything. Maybe there was nothing ominous about the way Claude was holding his head this morning. Maybe Nickwelter just wanted to ask me if I could switch a class with him. Maybe Templeton just really enjoys Halloween. Perhaps nobody really thinks too much about me or whether I’m happy or not. Maybe nobody cares the slightest bit about what happens to Isabelle Donhelle.

Is that worse, I wonder?

I crumple the second half of my sandwich inside the note, and toss the whole thing into the trash.

I don’t want to talk to Professor Nickwelter today, so I don’t. I don’t want to give my mother a call back yet, so I won’t. I didn’t plan on going home early today, but I do anyway. I try to occupy my mind with thoughts of what I’ll wear when I accompany Templeton to Salem on Halloween night.

Sadly, I can’t help but worry about what he’ll think of my decision.

I’m not in the habit of checking my answering machine the moment I get in, since it’s never blinking anyway. The first thing I do when I come home from work is say hello to Claude. Ever since my apartment was broken into, I can’t help but say hi to him as I open the door, before he can see me; I don’t want him to ever think there might be another stranger in our home. He always answers me back. Today he doesn’t.

From my coat closet, I step into the kitchen. I scoop out a third of a cup of mix to bring to Claude. That is what I do every day, and this is exactly what I do today.

But when I walk into my living room, I am shocked to find that there is no bird to feed! My heart stops beating. Claude’s cage is empty! The metal latch on the cage door is broken, and lays on the floor in two pieces. The window is open, just as I had left it this morning. Just as I always leave it.

I have to catch my breath. I don’t want to fear the worst, as there’s no way Claude could fly out the window on one wing, and so I search the apartment. I keep cool. I stay rational. It’s possible that Claude could have snapped the metal latch with his powerful beak. It’s possible that the cold weather made the latch that much more brittle. Anything is possible, but the fact remains that he’s not here anywhere.

With my head out the window, I search the back alley. Nothing. My car is the only vehicle behind the building. In my mind, Claude breaks the latch in two with his beak, and he hops onto the window ledge. Maybe birds do dream. Maybe he has yearned to fly with the other birds. Maybe Claude has even greater aspirations than I do. I wouldn’t be surprised. I envision him recollecting the last jump he ever took, the one that would eventually lead to the amputation of his left wing. All he wants is that life of his back again. He never asked for this change in the first place; he never wanted it. And he jumps off the window ledge. Is he trying to remember how his old life used to be? Or is he trying to put an end to it all? What would it matter though, since the only resolution would be his poor body crushing against the pavement behind the Starbucks in Public Alley 434. Exactly where my car is parked now.

Was he still lying there when I pulled in five minutes ago, completely oblivious?

I dart out of my apartment. I run down the three flights of stairs and out the back door into the alley. I gather the courage to look under my car.

Nothing.

I look in the gutter. I look in and around the dumpsters.

Still nothing. Claude is nowhere to be found.

I look back up at my open window and I wonder how this could have happened. It just doesn’t make any sense. I thought that out of everything in my life Claude would be the one that loved me the most. He wasn’t just biding his time, waiting to leave me, was he?

I look up to the telephone wires and see the same rock pigeons that were there when I left this morning. Maybe they know exactly what happened. The only witnesses to this crime.

When I start to think that Claude might be gone forever, tears well up inside of me. I don’t want to cry outside where passing vagrants can witness my embarrassing breakdown as they dig through dumpsters. I don’t want them, of all people, feeling sorry for me. I can smell the bags of coffee grinds piled high in the trash, and the aroma helps me to regain my senses.

When I get back inside my apartment, I still don’t cry; I take one last look for Claude instead.

Still nothing.

And still no tears.

Should I call Templeton? Is that the next logical step? This is what he’s supposed to be in my life for, isn’t it? I never did get too much in the way of comfort from Professor Nickwelter, and lord knows that the infamous Claude of Doneau High was certainly not an expert in the fine art of compassion, but maybe Templeton can be what I need.

He had given me the number for his cell phone, but so far I’ve resisted the use of it. I didn’t want to seem too needy too early in this new relationship. I pick up my phone and dial, except it doesn’t ring.

I hang up and try again, but I soon realize that there’s no dial tone. I check the cable to find it’s been unplugged. I can’t recall the last time that I had used my phone, or the last time I’d heard it ring. The answering machine is unplugged too. I think of the note from Steffen James, and how my mother has been waiting three weeks for me to return her phone call.

If only I’d called my mother back.

With the phone plugged back into the wall I give Templeton’s number another try, but all I get is his voice mail:

“You’ve reached Templeton Rate. This had better be good.”

I leave a frazzled message, urging him to call me back. I tell him that Claude is missing, and I suggest that maybe he could come by my place as soon as he’s free. I hope I don’t sound too desperate.

I wonder how my phone ever became unplugged in the first place. But I brush it off, since I’m more concerned with the fact that Claude is still gone, and that I’m still not crying about it.

His cage is so empty. The metal door still hangs open, swaying a little back and forth. There’s a slight breeze coming in through the window, but the air is freezing cold. It’s colder in here without Claude. After one last look out into the alley, I close the window, and I lay down on my bed.

The phone doesn’t ring all evening. And there are still no tears.

It’s dark when I wake up. I’m in a haze, but I’m certain I hear a rapping on my window. I sit up to listen closely, but the sound has stopped. Immediately, I remember everything that had happened since I’d come home from work. The memories are soon interrupted when I hear it again. Is it Claude outside? Or is somebody trying to break in again? Well go ahead already, there’s nothing left here that could be taken from me that I would miss.

Cautiously, I move off the bed and peek around the corner into my living room. A cold sweat comes over me as I see a shadowy figure outside on my fire escape. I duck back around the corner and I’m frozen in fear. If this person outside my window saw me, I have no idea.

As scared as I am, I still can’t muster any tears.

There’s another knock on the window, followed by a muffled voice. “Isabella? I know you’re in there. I can see you hiding around the corner, dummy.”

It’s Templeton’s voice for sure; no one else would constantly mispronounce my name like he does. But why is he going out of his way to scare the beef out of me? I take a cautious look around the corner; he’s crouched over, peering into my nest.

“Come on, open the window. It’s fucking freezing out here.”

With legs shaking, I slowly wobble towards him. I’m right beside the silent birdcage.

“What are you doing here?” I ask, sliding the window open.

“Uh, you called me remember? Something about a missing bird, I believe.” he climbs inside my living room and thoughtlessly rattles the empty cage beside him. “Is it this one?”

“His name is Claude.” I slap his hand off of the cage. “And I’m really worried, so be nice to me, okay?”

Ignoring the request, Templeton looks into the cage. It’s demeaning to think that he’s searching inside because he assumes I may have missed something. “Claude’s kind of a silly name for bird, don’t you think? Macaws aren’t even French.”

“I said be nice Templeton. He’s missing. Claude is gone, and I don’t know if he jumped out that window and killed himself, or if he’s still alive somewhere and suffering. I feel horrible. I’m sick to my stomach with worry, and you don’t even care.”

He dusts some snow off his coat, and shakes his wet hair like a dog. Then he puts a hand on my shoulder in an attempt at compassion. “Hey, I’m here aren’t I?”

“And then you scare me by coming through my window in the middle of the night? How did you even get up on the fire escape anyway?”

“There’s a pipe. I just shimmied up the pipe, and grabbed on. You don’t exactly have the best security system back there, you know?”

Still without any tears, I collapse into Templeton, and he wraps his arms around me. I don’t ask him where he was this afternoon. I don’t ask him why he didn’t call me back. I don’t know why he didn’t buzz my door instead of scaling the side of the building like some crazy cat burglar, and I don’t care. All I ask is for him to come to bed with me, and he obliges.

We kiss all the way into the bedroom, and once there, Templeton breaks apart from me and he lies down on the bed. I’m standing in the middle of the room. He asks me to undress, and I do. I’m still wearing my work clothes. Reaching up under my skirt, I remove my pantyhose, tossing them silently to the floor in a heap of black nylon. I unbutton my shirt and unzip my skirt; they fall together at my feet as well. I’m standing before him in my bra and underwear. Templeton remains motionless. He lies on my bed watching me, waiting for me to finish. Slowly, I remove the rest of my clothes. They seem to float down to the floor like a feather on the wind. Like the blowing down feather I’d spotted in the laboratory this morning. The look on his face remains unchanged, like he’s feeling nothing. I’m naked before him and he doesn’t feel a thing.

We get under the covers, and I kiss him as passionately as I can, but he’s not giving me anything in return. He seems preoccupied. I sit on top of him. His hands feel my back, as though looking for something, maybe imagining something that isn’t there. Pretending I’m someone that I’m not. Only then does he really kiss me.

He doesn’t waste any time inside of me. Again, romance is substituted for more of a cloacal kiss-type of experience. Still, I’ve never felt as wonderfully vulnerable as I do right now.

His hands never leave my back.

After he finishes, Templeton removes his hands from my shoulder blades, and holds my face in his palms. Then he says it. Those three words: “I love you.”

If only I hadn’t believed him.

For a moment, I completely forget that Claude is missing. That’s the moment that I finally cry. Templeton holds me, and he doesn’t let go until I fall asleep.

I have no idea what time it is when I wake up. It’s still dark. I don’t look for the clock because the first thing that crosses my mind is that Claude is still gone. Scanning the flattened sheets beside me, I can tell that Templeton is now missing as well. But he isn’t far. He hasn’t left me alone this time.

He’s still here, standing across the room. He’s naked, and looking out my window. The glow from the streetlight outside illuminates him. He’s staring up into the night. What he’s looking at, I have no idea. But it seems more like he’s looking for something, rather than at something.

I don’t think he heard me moving, but he turns back to me now. I don’t move an inch; pretending I’m still asleep as he watches me. Staring at me, but not knowing I’m watching him too. The light catches his face, and I notice the dull wet shine of tears in his eyes. What is he thinking? What’s going through his mind? I can’t make sense of it. It’s like I’m still asleep and dreaming. I don’t know if he’s sad or scared or something else I wouldn’t even be able to understand. I don’t dare ask him though. I simply wait. I wait to see what he might do next.

And then he turns and leaves. He takes his clothes, and he leaves my apartment without another word. Without even so much as another scribbled note stuffed in a frog’s mouth.

I don’t sleep the rest of the night, so I don’t know if I ever would’ve woken from a dream or if I was still stuck in some horrible nightmare.

NEXT CHAPTER

Molt – Chapter Eleven

Contemplating Curses

SO THAT’S WHERE this all started. Thinking back on it now, I wonder why I didn’t get out of the whole darn situation that morning when I had the chance. I could have gotten up from the sidewalk and figured out what to do on my own, instead of following Templeton’s lead. I could have made my own choices, instead of simply allowing things to happen to me. I could have stayed miserably single, instead of becoming so fatally involved.

But I wouldn’t have sat on the bus with Templeton that morning if I hadn’t slept with him the night before; if I hadn’t had that argument with Professor Nickwelter in the back of his car; if I hadn’t waited four nights in a row at The Strangest Feeling; if I hadn’t left Ville Constance to come to Boston; if I hadn’t met Cindey Fellowes; if I hadn’t been rejected from the Doneau High basketball team.

Now that I think about it, I probably should have learned my lesson after running through the hedge that one afternoon before even thinking of joining the basketball team in the first place.

It’s starting to make a little more sense now, isn’t it? And I’ve only just scratched the surface of explaining how I got here. In this box without light. This cage without air. This life without hope. That’s not too dramatic, is it?

I was doubtful at first, but now I’m sure that my left arm must be broken. It hurts to touch, but I can’t stop myself from feeling the bones under my skin moving in ways they shouldn’t be moving. I’ve never had a broken bone in my life. It feels cold on the inside, but it burns to the touch.

I start thinking of my parents, back home in Ville Constance. The last time I’d seen my mother, I told her all about my feelings towards Templeton Rate. Well, at least Templeton as he had seemed at the time, from my own delusional standpoint. I know that through standard and practical parental advice, she had just wanted to make sure I was safe out on my own in the big world; that the decisions I was making could never hurt me. I know that now, but a whole lot of good that advice does at this point. I wonder if my parents ever regret giving advice as much as I regret having to listen to it? I wonder if they’re even the least bit worried about me right now? I suppose they could find some solace in the fact that I’m currently laying in the safest possible place in Boston. According to Templeton Rate, anyway.

After all, he did tell me that I’d be safest in here.

That this was the one place in the city I could be if I wanted to stay the way I wanted to stay.

My only hope for a last chance.

My last chance at death.

I pull myself up off the floor once again. Then I take a deep breath in and ready myself for my next big attempt at getting out of here. I charge across the floor, like a crazed Emu (Dromaius novaehollandiae). Because of the darkness, I’m not the least bit certain when I’ll impact with the other side, but I trip over my own feet before I even get there. I hit the wall awkwardly with my forearm, rather than connecting with my shoulder as I had intended. But that isn’t what really hurts; it’s the fall back to floor where I land on my left arm that really hurts.

The real truth is that all the lies I’ve been told are what really hurt the most. It’s the reality that one single person can be so cruel. Not just to me, but to an entire city. I think for a moment about whether my feet had tripped over something other themselves, but I figure it’s probably best to take care of the throbbing pain in my arm instead.

It’s radiating a smelly, wet heat now. I touch my arm to find that my broken ulna has now pierced right through the skin. The sight of blood is one of a number of things that really makes me uneasy. The smell of blood is another. Thankfully though, the lack of light is currently negating one of those fears. I begin to feel light-headed; it’s getting harder to think. I console myself with the thought that at least my bones aren’t hollow, like that of a bird, or else I might have shattered my arm completely.

I want to come up with the most sensible way out of this horrible predicament, yet I find myself contemplating curses instead. I’m trying to think of which precise word I’ll be yelling out loud in my one great final moment.

Awkwardly, I pull my right arm out of my Christmas Island Frigatebird (Fregata andrewsi) t-shirt, and then I slide the shirt over my left shoulder and carefully down my arm. I make sure I don’t snag it on the exposed bone. The blood-soaked shirt will have to do its best to absorb a little more of my insides. Hopefully I won’t need any more makeshift bandages tonight, because I’m quickly running out of clothes. And I’m finding no comfort in the fact that an endangered species t-shirt is saving my own life right now.

I hug the metal floor once again. Just what is going on outside right now, I wonder? Are things really as bad as I suspect they are? Maybe I would have been better off out there. I mean, in all my life to date, I’ve never liked being the odd one out. Who does? But now that I consider it, embracing change has to be the way to go, isn’t it? If you’re the last to change, you’re automatically the odd one out.

No. I’m not seriously trying to convince myself that being on the other side of these walls is the better option, can I? This lack of oxygen is really starting to take its toll.

Focus Isabelle. Where was I?

That image of Zirk in his costume suddenly pops into my head. It triggers memories of spending Halloween with Templeton. The answers were all right there in front of me that night, weren’t they?

If only I’d paid closer attention to the details.

How could I have been so blind?

I used to believe in witches. I suppose the fortuneteller I had visited in my youth with Cindey Fellowes was a witch, wasn’t she? Over time, I had convinced myself that witches were simply characters created to be antagonists in movies and to scare children in October. The same applies to ghosts and haunted houses.

I used to believe in angels. I used to believe in Santa Claus too. I used to believe in doing the right thing. I used to believe in Templeton Rate. And I used to believe I’d find a way out of here. Now I’m not so sure.

Right now, I’m not sure what it will take to believe in something else again.

To really dream again.

Or to truly live again.

Should I ever get the chance.

NEXT CHAPTER

Molt – Chapter Ten

Of the Ambiguous and the Once-Amphibious

WEDNESDAY, OCTOBER EIGHTH. I wake up and it’s staring right at me with empty, dried-up sockets. Wanting to lick its zippered lips. It wants to leap on me from those hollow legs.

Templeton Rate’s aftertaste stings like poison and it’s left my body inert. It hurts underneath my fingernails. My jaw is sore; my hair in knots, my taste buds flared. And for some reason, one of my big toes is in an incredible amount of throbbing pain. It all adds up to being a most invigorating feeling, one that I can admit to now that I wish I hadn’t gone so long without.

Still, all isn’t quite right, is it? My clothes are not on the floor where I’d left them. Instead, they’re on the bed and above the covers, as though tossed there from the floor, rather than the other way around. As I gather them up, I do so routinely, but certainly this is embarrassingly far from routine for Isabelle Donhelle. Slowly and awkwardly, much like my performance last night, I put my clothes back on while still under the covers, just in case Templeton enters as I’m dressing. Even though he’s unfortunately seen it all, I’d still rather save myself as much embarrassment as I possibly can.

When I see my socks on the floor, I instantly realize that, although I put my socks on left foot first and then right everyday without thought, today I would be pausing to think about it. Because this isn’t my modest one-bedroom apartment on Newbury Street. Because I’m used to mornings where the first sound I hear is Claude rattling his beak along metal bars. Because I always wake to the smell of coffee lazily drifting in through my open window, and to the ultra-hygienic taste of mouthwash still on my tongue from my habitual 3:00 AM trip to the bathroom. ­­­­­Instead, I’ve got the sound of this crooked ceiling fan whirring hazardously above me, the smell of these horribly-faded pink bed sheets and this long-forgotten lingering taste of sex and cigarettes.

I don’t even have a clue as to where I am. Or where Templeton is for that matter. I only pray that I’m still in Boston.

On the floor just beyond my socks and shoes, lies a pair of women’s underwear: a tiny blood-red mound of string and mesh fabric. They’re certainly not mine, and yet I can’t help but stare at them. I wonder who the last girl was to wrap herself in these sheets just as I’m doing now. I also think about how desperately I need that 3:00 AM oral cleansing right now.

What am I doing here? What exactly brings a girl like me to a place like this, and into pink sheets that smell like spoiled milk? What takes me from helping a struggling student after hours in the library to this? How does this happen? What is it that attracts a girl like me to a misfit like Templeton Rate in the first place?

If he hadn’t offered to pay for the cab ride last night; if he hadn’t suggested a return to The Strangest Feeling for coffee and dessert; if he hadn’t made out with me at the university library; if only that report hadn’t been so horrible and appeared so suddenly on my desk at home two nights ago in the first place.

It all culminated in the first sex I’ve had in the last two years. I’m ashamed to admit it, but I feel as though I’m much more intimate with the sexual devices of the avian world than I am with my own inner-workings. In birds, there is not usually a true penis-vagina copulation; instead, most males impregnate the female by what is known as a cloacal kiss, where the male mounts the female and presses his cloaca, or anal opening, against that of the female’s cloacal opening, into which he deposits his sperm. This will take anywhere between one to fifteen seconds. Embarrassingly, the whole process I’ve just described borders closely on the level of romance I experienced with Templeton last night.

I snap out of it and look again into the dried-up eyes of this thing in front of me. This leathery brown horror staring at me from the foot of the bed is a dead frog, or at least as far as I can tell, half of one. It still has its head and front legs, but with the charming addition of glued-on googly eyes, a zippered mouth and a key chain coming out of its torso, as if it were meant to hang fashionably from a belt. This grotesque thing is Templeton’s change purse. Part of me is totally freaked out at the idea that someone could keep money inside a dead animal turned into a novelty key chain, while another part of me just finds it more than a little baffling that Templeton Rate would carry a change purse in the first place. I remember reading somewhere that sailors had sometimes killed Wandering Albatross’s (Diomedea exulans) and made purses out of their webbed feet. I was reminded of that last night at The Strangest Feeling when I saw Templeton take this monstrosity out of his coat pocket and then oh-so-gentlemanly offered to pay for dessert. I was immediately disgusted then, but even more so now that I know it had been there all morning watching me sleep.

Waking up in an unfamiliar bed, being watched by a frog full of loose change, while another woman’s panties lay on the floor is about as unsettling of a thing as I can imagine.

I notice there appears to be a cigarette hanging from the side of the frog’s zippered lips. I move across the bed for a closer inspection, and realize that it’s simply rolled-up paper, torn from a page of lined foolscap.

Cautiously, I unroll it to find a note. It’s obvious that it’s from Templeton due to the charcoal scribbling, all in upper case, and the poor spacing with no punctuation:

GONE FOR

BREAKFAST SHOW

YOURSELF OUT AVOID ZIRK

AT ALL COSTS

My first thought is that I wished I’d actually waited long enough to see Templeton take some notes in the library yesterday afternoon, if for no other reason than to see exactly what he’s using as a writing instrument. I mean, charcoal again? Seriously?

And what the hoop is a zirk anyway?

No sooner do I ask myself this, does the door open. There’s that sour milk smell again. A twenty-something man in what appears to be a spandex bodysuit enters the bedroom. The reason I’m wondering if I am in fact still dreaming is that this white bodysuit is covered with fifteen or twenty familiar red stylized Canadian maple leaves. If I am truly dreaming, I only hope that I could be at home in my own bed right now.

“Zirk?” I ask, almost to myself. I try to cover up a little more with the bed sheet, even though I’m already dressed.

“Don’t mind me, gorgeous. I’m just getting some more ammonia.” The stranger pulls open a dresser drawer and begins digging through some rolled-up tube socks.

“What? Ammonia?” I rub my eyes hard with the balls of my hands, foolishly hoping that he’ll be gone when my vision clears. Unfortunately he’s not. “Um…do you know where Templeton is?”

He turns to me with a peculiar look in his eye. He spots the red panties on the floor and then focuses back on me, as if trying to make a connection between the two. On his bodysuit, there’s a maple leaf situated right between his legs, in true Adam and Eve fig leaf style. I pull the covers a little bit tighter around myself. He asks me, “Templeton?”

“Templeton Rate. Is he still…around?”

“Templeton went out for breakfast.” He gestures towards the change purse at the end of the bed, as though he had put it there himself. “Didn’t you get the note?”

I wave the note timidly in my hand, and he goes back to work searching through the sock drawer. Above me, the precarious ceiling fan gives me hope that there might be a quick end coming to this awkward situation. I’m almost afraid to ask, but I go for it anyway. “Do you mind me asking? What’s with the get-up?”

He slides the dresser drawer closed and opens the next one down. “The get-up? If you hadn’t realized yet, it’s Halloween.”

“Not for another two-and-a-half weeks, it isn’t.”

“Sure, if that’s how you want to look at it.” He continues to speak with his back turned to me, more focused on his search than anything. “But some things don’t have to be celebrated for only one day out of the year, correct? Why do you put your Christmas tree up weeks in advance?” I don’t want to tell him that my landlord doesn’t allow Christmas trees in the apartment at any time of the year, but he’s not waiting for a response from me anyway. He feverishly continues to root through the contents of the open dresser drawer.

I’m trying not to stare, yet I can’t help but notice one of the maple leaves on his suit is wedged uncomfortably between the crack of his fanny. I’m not sure if he’s supposed to be a luge pilot or some kind of superhero, I just try my best to block out the entire image instead.

I’m not certain I received an actual answer the first time, so I ask him again: “Is your name Zirk?” For emphasis, I even point to the unrolled paper in my hand.

“You haven’t seen a bottle of ammonia around here, have you?” he answers obliviously. He closes the middle drawer and slides open the bottom one, continuing the harried search.

With a quick look around me, the first thing I take note of is a grocery bag filled with t-shirts on the floor beside the bed. They all must be from old music concerts, as I can make out faded tour dates from ten years ago and rock-and-roll mullets through the translucency of the plastic.

For some reason, there’s a pink lawn-flamingo stuck in the carpet. Plastic flamingos are commonly thought to be imitations of the Lesser Flamingo (Phoenicopterus minor), since that is the bird they most resemble. However, in ornithology circles it is believed that they are in actuality their own species. This theory is supported by phonetics, as a plastic flamingo is properly pronounced with a long ‘a’ sound (“flay-mingo”), unlike their real-life counterparts. Interestingly, the number of plastic lawn flamingos drastically outnumbers real flamingos in all of North America by a count of nearly fifty-to-one.

Hanging from the ceiling in the corner of the room is a plastic five-bird mobile. They appear to be Mallards (Anas platyrhynchos), but due to the juvenile nature of the designs, I can’t tell if these are male drakes or females. The real key of course, would be the drake’s unmistakable green head and yellow bill (females have light brown heads and dark brown bills), but since it appears the heads have all been shot off with a pellet gun, it’s impossible to tell. And truthfully, not very important at the moment.

I don’t see a bottle of ammonia anywhere.

The bottom drawer doesn’t appear to have what this costumed intruder is looking for either. I ask him, “Does Templeton know you’re rummaging through his bedroom looking for ammonia?”

“This isn’t Templeton’s room, gorgeous. It’s my room. And before you ask…yes. You’re in my bed.”

I’m instantly too disgusted to respond, so he’s allowed to continue freely without retort. “This is my dresser. And I’m looking for my bottle of ammonia, which I’ll be using to wash my money. Your ass in my bed notwithstanding, I seriously cannot stand other people’s dirt. Do you know how many people have handled a common twenty-dollar bill?” Even if I had an answer for him, he doesn’t give me time to open my mouth. “One point two million. That adds up to over ten million dirty digits all over poor Andrew Jackson’s face. Not to mention the twenty-two million all up in Abe Lincoln’s grill. And nearly thirty million fingers have been in George Washington’s curly locks. Those are some seriously filthy numbers. You don’t even know who those hands belong to.”

I can’t help but notice the poorly concealed bulge on his costume. This man really knows how to make a girl feel uncomfortable. “I guess I never thought about it that way before,” I say to him, for lack of anything better to say.

“Of course you didn’t.”

I look back down at the plastic bag full of shirts. I think one of them says Toad The Wet Sprocket on it.

He catches me looking. “You’re probably wondering why I’ve got that bag of shirts? You’re wondering why I keep them there, aren’t you? They’re so old and faded I’d never wear them again. I don’t even like looking at them. And I certainly don’t want anyone to ever know that I’ve been to a Crash Test Dummies concert before. You see that fan shaking above your head? If that fan should fly off in the middle of the night and slash my head open, I’m going to want something on hand to save my life. Some kind of bandage to stop the bleeding, you know? And what’s better than an old Spin Doctors t-shirt, right?”

I look to the plastic flamingo in the floor and the shot-up mallard mobile, and I’m finding that these birds are doing very little in the way of making me feel the slightest bit at ease here.

If Zirk had been telling this story, he’d make it incredibly hard to follow.

I notice a digital clock on the floor; it’s blinking 9:23 AM. If the time is correct, then my Evolution class started almost half an hour ago. “I don’t want to be rude,” I say, throwing the covers off myself and jumping out of the bed. “But I’ve really got to go.” I pick up my socks and shoes and head for the door.

He keeps talking, even as I leave the bedroom. And even as I’m out of the apartment and making a break for it down the stairs to the street, I can still hear him yelling something to me about having a happy Halloween.

I sit outside on the curb and put my socks back on, left foot first. Then my shoes. Yesterday’s snow is already gone. Already a forgotten moment in history. I give myself a moment to catch my breath and focus. Where am I? Did Templeton even live at this apartment? I may not know where in the city I am, but at least I don’t have to listen to anymore of Captain Canada’s crazy ramblings.

I don’t recognize anything around me at all.

There are rows of dingy apartment buildings, and across the street is a tiny park with a swing set. Only the chains are hanging where the seats used to be.

I see a poster for some movie called Dead Ducks, and I wonder just where that saying had ever originated from.

The telephone pole beside me has a faded picture of a girl stapled to it; she can’t be any older than twenty. There are piles of wilted flowers. A wooden cross lies flat on the sidewalk, fallen over from where it had once leaned. There’s a large chunk of the wooden telephone pole missing, at about knee-height. These are all tragic telltale signs of an accident that must have killed this girl. Perhaps she was sitting on the curb, right where I’m sitting now. Maybe she was lost, just as I am. I pick up the cross and lean it back up against the telephone pole.

As I do, I notice the dead carcass of a bird laying in the gutter. The front of its head has been caved-in. I can tell that it’s a Domestic Pigeon (Columba livia domestica) and that it’s probably been dead for over a week now. This girl, whoever she was, gets her own roadside memorial. But the bird? Nothing. A tear swells in my eye as I think that maybe Templeton left me here for dead too. Will anyone leave a memorial behind for the memory of Isabelle Donhelle when I’m gone? Or will I be left in the gutter without a second thought?

Due to the broken skull, my best guess is that this bird was likely killed by a glass collision, flying headfirst into a window. Astoundingly, hundreds of millions of birds are killed by glass collisions annually. Diurnal birds such as pigeons are attracted by the internal reflection of buildings with many windows. For all I know, this bird might have even flown right into Zirk’s apartment window, two floors above me.

I know I should take care of this dead pigeon somehow, but I don’t. The best I can do is shuffle down the curb to sit a little closer to it. I think back thirteen years to the bloody raven on my Power of Science textbook. I suppose some memories have a harder time than others when it comes to leaving for good…

I remember the light disappearing from the raven’s eyes as its pupils dilated and it died right in front of me. It was the first time I had ever seen anything die. I remember the blood as it slowly trickled off the edge of the paper. The smell made my nose sting. It soaked right through the page numbers. I remember seeing the one feather that had snagged on the broken window, still alive as it blew ever so gently in the wind…

I remember kissing Templeton in the library last night. I remember Mr. Giacomin shaking his head at me disapprovingly as we exited. I wasn’t embarrassed at the time, but I wish I was. I remember being outside in the parking lot and picking up where we left off. I remember how cold it was. I didn’t care that there were other students mingling around the university grounds. I didn’t care that Templeton had dirt on his face. I think that maybe it was our heat that melted what little snow had remained…

I remember Templeton suggesting that we get a bite to eat, as he was craving a piece of pie. “I know a really great place,” I remember him saying to me. He hailed a cab, and he paid for it himself, all in loose change. I remember the sound of the zipper as he opened the frog’s mouth and dug his dirty fingers inside for the money. I was completely horrified by the sight of it. I remember Templeton telling me his fantasy of a world in the future inhabited by giants who use humans as change purses. I laughed a little as he told me all about it. I remember seeing the cab driver’s license; his name was Wilbur, which we both found funny for some reason. Even funnier and more amusing than Templeton’s peculiar imaginings. I remember that Templeton didn’t help me out of the cab when it stopped…

We were back at The Strangest Feeling, and I remember thinking that this would be the once-promised second date I had wished for a week ago. Kitty remembered Templeton, but I’m not sure if she recognized me. She informed us that the kitchen was out of pie, so we opted for a deep-fried chocolate bar and some coffee instead. I remember looking at Templeton, and although we didn’t have much to say to one another, I came to the conclusion that I genuinely liked him. I thought Templeton Rate could actually make me happy. He made me smile, even though I’m not entirely sure why…

I remember Templeton suggesting we go back to his place. I asked him if he lived nearby, and I remember him telling me it was too far to walk so we’d better get another taxi. Templeton didn’t open the door for me on our way out of the diner. I don’t remember what directions he gave to the driver, but it felt like we were going in circles for a half hour. I remember our hands exploring one another for the first time in the back of the taxi. I remember everywhere that his hand had touched me. I remember not wanting it to end…

For some reason, I wonder which of these memories would still be in my head years from now. Which ones will make the cut?

I turn away from the pigeon just in time to hear familiar footsteps approach behind me. Templeton Rate sits down on the curb beside me; the dead pigeon between our feet.

“Say, that would make a great handbag, wouldn’t it?” He nudges the bird with the toe of his shoe.

And then I remember just how rude he can be.

“Where have you been Templeton? I’m late for my class, and I don’t even know where I am.”

Templeton turns to me, confused. “I went out for breakfast. Didn’t you get the note I left you?”

I’d stashed the dirty note into my pocket on my way out this morning. I take it out and wave it in his face. “You mean this, right? Thanks a lot. It was very kind of you to leave it behind.”

“You’re welcome.” He removes a cigarette from his coat pocket and strikes a matchstick on the sidewalk. He takes a quick drag, and then he holds the smoke out to offer me a puff.

“No thank you. Haven’t I told you yet that I don’t smoke?”

“Well, thankfully, I think we skipped that whole boring first-date interview process yesterday.” He flicks some ashes onto the dead pigeon.

“Don’t do that! That’s disrespectful.” I push his hand away in the other direction. I take another look at the note, just to make sure I didn’t miss any details that might help to clear things up for me. Nothing.

He glances over, and taps on the ‘avoid zirk at all costs’ part of the message. “So, did you heed my warnings?”

“That’s a difficult thing to do considering how you left me in his bed.”

“Well, I don’t have a bed of my own yet. It makes for an awkward living situation.”

“Tell me about it.”

“Seriously though,” Templeton continues. “Zirk is crazy. Mentally, he’s just totally out to lunch. Completely one-hundred-percent fucked-up. I honestly have no idea how he manages to hold down a full-time job. You should have just avoided him entirely.”

“Now you tell me.”

“He works with me at the hotel you know? He’s a doorman too.”

I have to ask, “What’s the deal with the costume?”

“Costume?”

I can’t tell if he’s joking with me, or simply has no idea what I’m talking about. Either way, I decide not to dwell on it; it’s probably best to just keep things moving along. “Never mind,” I say.

He takes another long drag of his cigarette and looks off into the distance, watching the morning clouds roll into place. I’ve never seen anyone so peaceful. I wish I could calm myself down a little, but I’m still upset about everything that’s transpired. “If you went out for breakfast, why did you leave your wallet behind? Just to keep an eye on me?”

“He doesn’t have eyes anymore,” he says calmly.

Finally, I turn my attention away from him. “I’m really mad at you right now Templeton. Do you know that? This isn’t how you’re supposed to treat people. I’m mad, and it doesn’t even seem like you notice.”

“Don’t worry about it. I notice everything.” Templeton takes one long, last drag of the cigarette, and then extinguishes it at his feet. He motions to the girl’s picture on the telephone pole beside us. “Did you know her?”

“Hmm? No. Why would I know her?”

“She was in your class, wasn’t she?”

I take a good long look at the picture, but it’s not ringing any bells. Curly brown hair. Toothy smile. Her whole life ahead of her. She looks just like any of the girls at the school, or anywhere else for that matter. Students are students. They’re all the same, aren’t they? If this dead girl actually did attend Hawthorne University, then she went completely unnoticed by me. “Are you sure?” I’m already starting to put this morning’s events behind me. “What was her name?”

Templeton looks at the picture at little more closely now too, as though he’s searching it for hidden answers. “I don’t know. I didn’t know her.”

Tied to one of the flowers is a note that reads ‘We’ll always love you Autumn.’ Again, I find myself wondering about my own memorial.

He tries changing the subject while I’m not paying attention. “I think it’s funny.”

“What’s that?” I ask.

“It’s funny how the ideas of life and death are so separate, but at the same time they’re so closely connected to one another, aren’t they?”

I don’t have an answer for him, since I don’t really know what his point is. He doesn’t embellish either. After another minute though, I get tired of waiting for an explanation. “I’m not sure what you mean,” I confess.

“What is it that you see when you look around you?”

I scan everything with my eyes: the dead pigeon, the dead girl and the dead flowers. I even envision the dead frog back upstairs.

Strangely, he knows exactly what it is that I’m seeing. Another xerox copy of my thoughts. “All you see is death, don’t you? But all I see are the traces of life that still surround it all.”

He’s right; aside from the sound of traffic in the distance and a plastic bag blowing by us on a breeze in true American Beauty style, I don’t see anything in the way of life here. There’s so much loss and sadness on this sidewalk. I want to tell him I know he’s right. I want to tell him that I can’t help but see the worst in everything, because of my own inability to see the best in myself. And I want to ask him to elaborate, to share his own feelings on the subject, or maybe even ask him to apologize for abandoning me twice now, but thankfully Templeton continues before I can say anything too stupid.

“Do you see that?” He directs my attention to an old rusted car parked about ten feet from where we sit, and he points out a long scrape on the trunk. “You see where the paint has been scratched right off? There’s a story about what happened there. Somebody somewhere knows that story, and they experienced it first-hand. That seemingly insignificant little scrape has its own complicated story for why it exists.” He reaches his hand out to feel something on the telephone pole beside us. “Somebody carved their initials into this telephone pole. Do you see? They stood right here in this very spot and scratched a W and a C into the wood with who knows what. Maybe a pocketknife? Maybe a rock? I don’t know why they did it, but there’s got to be a reason.” He picks up the wilted flowers, and inspects them delicately. Some ants crawl out onto his hand, but he doesn’t bother flicking them away. “These flowers were left here by someone. Someone that went to some shitty corner store and overpaid for them. And somebody somewhere grew these flowers and cut them and sold them for the sole purpose of taking advantage of that one person’s mourning.” He tosses the flowers back down at the base of the telephone pole as though they don’t mean anything at all now.

“I don’t know,” is what I tell him, which is certainly an understatement for how I feel. I don’t know why on Earth he’s considering the origins of a scrape on a car, carvings in a telephone pole or even where the flowers must have come from.

“Don’t you see?” he pushes. “All around us are casualties of life. Things that still exist, but at the same time are also non-existent. And yet the signs are still there; within all the dead shit there remain the signs of life. Imagine we were sitting in the middle of a graveyard; what would you see? All you would see is death, wouldn’t you? Most people would. But what’s really more important to you: life or death?”

I don’t know the answer to that. I don’t know what’s more important. I only know that I’m lonely. I know that all I desperately want is for someone to finally love me, and not expect to receive cheapened birthday greetings; not cheat on their wife; not leave me scared and alone in their creepy roommate’s smelly pink bed sheets.

“You know Isabella…”

“Isabelle,” I correct him.

“Right. You know, I was thinking that I like you. It’s not particularly easy for me to be so open and honest. I know I’m not perfect. I probably say shit you don’t like and do fucked-up things that piss you off, but I think that I do. I think that I really do like you.”

I can’t believe it, but those three words that I’ve been waiting forever to hear? This was actually the closest anyone’s come so far. It’s kind of pathetic in a way. I’m still mad at him, but instead of telling him everything, instead of being as honest as he’s being with me, I simply decide to say, “I think I like you too, Templeton.”

“What do you say I get you back to school then? I’m missing class too, you know.”

It occurs to me that my car is still sitting in the staff parking lot. We get up from the curb and walk to catch a bus to the University. In an unexpected move, he even pays for my bus ride with some more change from his pocket.

I instantly recognize the familiar orange plastic seats of bus #3031. This was my birthday present to myself last Thursday. This was the same bus I had gotten off of to avoid Templeton Rate a week ago. The same one in which he’d found me, all alone and miserable. Where he’d spotted some sign of life that I was previously unaware of.

I sit in the same seat, and notice the same screw twisted into the pole in front of me. I was searching for answers within its X-shaped void just a week ago, but there’s nothing hidden from me that’s worth looking for now. There’s nowhere I’m trying to run from, nothing I’m trying to ignore. Templeton even puts his arm around my shoulder.

As I turn to him and smile, I notice something on the other side of the window. Right around the corner from Templeton’s apartment building, nestled between the same triple-x porn shops, is The Strangest Feeling café. Strangely, we were only about half a block away.

NEXT CHAPTER

Molt – Chapter Nine

In the Lek

From the field journal of Professor I. Donhelle:

The process in which the male Black-Headed Grosbeak (Pheucticus melanocephalus) will attract a potential female partner is through determination. With its wings and tail feathers spread wide, he sings his song as he flutters from one large tree branch to the next. From his vantage points, the black-headed grosbeak instantly knows if there are any intruding male competitors that need to be chased away. Eventually, an interested female will answer his call, and the two will nest monogamously for the one breeding season. After which, they will part ways forever.

………

MEETING TEMPLETON RATE in the library at six-thirty that evening was not so much a mistake as it was just me doing my job. Why then did it feel as though I was making a big mistake? After all, it was me who had suggested this rendezvous. I actually pushed to help Templeton. He probably would never have even asked me. I was just doing my job, wasn’t I?

At least, that was what I thought at the time.

If I hadn’t suggested helping him in the library that evening.

So although the arrangements were made, and even though he had confirmed the meeting with the last words spoken, it’s now eight o’clock; I’ve been sitting here alone in a darkened corner of the university library for an hour-and-half. I’ve been marking papers the entire time, but I have yet to find any that are anywhere near as compelling as Templeton’s. I contemplate leaving right now, but that all-too-familiar sad-sack part of Isabelle Donhelle opts to give it another half hour.

The old librarian, Mr. Giacomin, comes over to my desk with a cup of black coffee from the cafeteria. “I don’t think he’s going to show,” he says to me, bringing back memories of Sunday night at The Strangest Feeling. Along with a package of sugar, he sets the coffee down on the desk beside the stack of unopened textbooks. This cafeteria sludge will certainly pale in comparison to, let’s say the versatile and complex Venetian blend: full and creamy, with a sweet finish. One pack of sugar is definitely not going to cut it here, but I don’t want to sound ungrateful.

“I thought there was no food or drink allowed in the library?” I ask him.

“What makes a life worth living if you’re going to play by all of the rules all of the time?” he asks with a twinkle in his eye. “Besides, it’s my library, so I make all of the rules. All of the time. Just make sure nobody else sees it, okay?”

“You got it, Mr. Giacomin.” As he walks away, I take a few more packets of sugar from my purse; I’ve gotten into the habit of carrying extra, just in case. I pour all of the sugar into the coffee and stir it with a pencil, telling myself I’ll give Templeton only until the coffee is gone.

 ………

From the field journal of Professor I. Donhelle:

The process in which the male Greater Prairie-Chicken (Tympanuchus cupido) attracts a prospective female mate is by displaying his best assets. With his head bent forward, his ear tufts raised, his throat pouch expanded, his wings held close to the ground and his tail broadly fanned, the bird parades around the display grounds, known as the lek, snapping his tail and filling the air sacs located on either side of his head. Forcing out the air, the greater prairie-chicken produces a resonant, booming love song. Females peruse the lek and they choose their mate on the basis of this display. The one or two most dominant males will undertake roughly ninety-percent of the mating in one lek. The birds mate quickly, before any rival males can disrupt them, and then the female leaves to nest elsewhere. In this brief encounter no real pair bond is formed, and the male has absolutely no participation in raising the young.

 ………

With those memories of Sunday night flooding my head, I can feel myself falling into this newly created, and incredibly feeble, self-destructive pattern. That being said, this first day of snow was shaping up to be not so terrible after all. Through the library window, I see the thinly blanketed parking lot glowing under the streetlight. In some areas, it’s already melted away to nothing. Sure, I may be disappointed by how this evening’s scheduled tutoring has turned out, but I convince myself that I had already gotten over Templeton Rate anyway. All I was waiting for here was a struggling student who never really wanted my help in the first place.

I hear footsteps approaching, and I realize that Templeton Rate is far more complicated than I had first thought. There’s much more going on here to warrant my concern. After all, this was the first day of snow, was it not?

“You’re not supposed to have coffee in the library,” the voice behind me states confidently.

I slide the cup out of view behind my textbooks. “You weren’t supposed to see that.”

“Ah, but I did.” Templeton pulls out a chair from the table beside us, even though there’s one here already, and he sits down next to me. “You can’t change that.”

I notice he hasn’t brought study materials of any kind with him. That is, unless he has some more pieces of scrap paper and a stick of charcoal in his coat pocket. Pushing the stack of texts between us, I try to get down to business. “Seeing as how you’ve wasted most of my evening already, I’d like to get right to it. Where do you want to start? Avian bone structure? Respiratory systems? Migration patterns?”

“How about we start with this,” Templeton reaches across me, and takes the coffee cup into his hand. “Why is it that you want to help me so badly anyway?” He takes a loud slurp of my coffee, deliberately getting the attention of some students to our left. They politely shush us.

“Honestly?” I whisper back, “I’m not really sure.” I search for some generic answer I can give him. I don’t want him to think that there are any feelings I’m holding back, and I certainly don’t want him to know that I was at The Strangest Feeling four nights in a row waiting for him like some schoolgirl with a pathetic crush. But I’m over that now, aren’t I? “I think what it is Templeton, is that I can see potential in you. Potential I don’t want to see going wasted.”

Templeton calls it perfectly. “That is such a load of generic bullshit.”

He braces himself before opening his mouth again, “Let me tell you a little story about wasted potential.”

“All right,” I say, and I brace myself for whatever might be coming.

“I once read an article about a shipment of myna birds that was coming from China to America. I think they were on their way to the New York Zoo, or somewhere like that. It doesn’t matter though, because they never got to the zoo. The shipment arrived in New York, but a cage in one of the crates had broken open during the flight. When the crate was inspected at the airport, there must have been twenty or thirty myna birds that flew out and escaped into the city.” He takes another greedy sip of coffee before continuing. “Here’s the amusing part: those birds had been trained to mimic speech. And when they began nesting in Manhattan, they would fly by hot dog stands and office towers. They would buzz around Central Park, and you could hear them screaming things like “good morning! What’s your name? Which way is the airport?” All in Mandarin, of course.” Templeton doesn’t care if he yells out in the library. He’s shushed again from across the room as he continues his bizarre story. “But do you know what I thought when I read this article? All I could think of was how much of a wasted idea this was. Those birds could have been trained to mimic car horns. Or crying babies. Or the theme song from Tetris. How awesome would that be? But all they could do was say things in Mandarin.”

“Is there a point to your story?”

His dark eyes are intense. They study the pile of textbooks, figuring out how to challenge me next. “You really don’t think that I know the first thing about anything in these textbooks, do you?”

I have to be completely honest with him. “You know, that’s exactly what I think. You can’t give me information like ‘birds prefer sex outside of their own species,’ and expect me to assume you know what you’re talking about, can you? That’s incredibly presumptuous.”

“What? That’s not true then? Boy, I’m going to need a lot of help here, aren’t I?”

If I hadn’t waited for him in the library for an hour-and-a-half.

 ………

From the field journal of Professor I. Donhelle:

The process in which a Southern Royal Albatross (Diomedea epomophora) will attract a mate is through dance. A non-breeding male will spend many years practicing, learning and perfecting his own personalized elaborate breeding dance. His repertoire will involve such actions as preening, pointing, calling, bill clacking and many combinations of such behaviors. He will dance with many different partners during multiple returns to the same breeding colony. But after a number of years, he will interact with fewer and fewer females, until eventually one partner is chosen and a pair bond is formed. This pair bond will last their entire lifetime since the albatross is completely monogamous. As such, the specific dance that was so carefully refined over so many years is forgotten, and it will never be displayed again.

 ………

“Can I ask you something personal?” Templeton prods.

“I think that depends on what it is that you plan on asking me.”

Of course he asks anyway. “What’s with all the tension between you and that Nickwelter guy?”

“I’m afraid that’s too personal.”

“You fucked him, didn’t you?”

“Please Templeton! That’s really inappropriate.” I can’t help it, but I raise my voice just a little, only to get shushed myself.

“But you did, didn’t you? Like a Fischer’s lovebird wanting to fuck a dirty old turkey vulture. Isn’t that right?”

Once again, a part of me is disgusted by the language Templeton throws around so callously, while another part is impressed by his knowledge of the genus. I reach out in an attempt to re-collect my textbooks without him noticing. “I suppose you’re more within my genus? Is that what you’re implying?”

“That’s not what I’m saying at all, Professor.” Pulling the textbooks back into his dirty hands, Templeton moves them out of my reach. “Listen, why don’t we just cut out all of this ornithological foreplay and get down to the real business at hand?”

I don’t mean to turn away from him, but I do. From the library window, and against the darkening night sky, I see a flock of Snow Geese (Chen caerulescens) flying against the wind. They flap their wings, but stay glued to that same piece of sky. I know they’ll stay right there for as long as it takes the wind to back off, as their migratory route will not be affected by something as insignificant as the weather.

I get a sudden flashback of that first snowflake on my eyelash this morning. It’s still cold enough to give me a chill. I turn back to Templeton. With my eyes, I ask him a million questions at once without saying even a single word. And he gives me absolutely zero answers in return.

 ………

From the field journal of Professor I. Donhelle:

The process in which the Indian Peafowl (Pavo cristatus) attracts a mate is through sheer beauty. The male utilizes the eyespots on his tail feathers to attract peahens. This is sometimes referred to as the food-courtship theory, where over time, a male’s plumage will genetically evolve to have patterns and colors that appeal to the diet of prospective female mates. The peafowl’s eyespots bear a striking resemblance to blueberries, a common diet of the peahen. The males with the most eyespots on their tail will have the greatest mating success. No singing or dancing talents are required, this is merely a show where beauty is the main attraction.

………

“What were you saying earlier, when you said you could see me molting?” I ask him. “What was that all about?”

Templeton folds his hands together and puts them behind his head. “I know you probably don’t deal with a lot of metaphors in your line of work, but that’s all I was getting at. You were changing. Even right now, you still are. These thoughts and feelings inside you at this moment, they’re not the same as the ones you had last week. Those are gone. And these new ones? They’re still feelings, still raw emotions, but now they’re entirely different. You’re still you though; you’ve just become better adapted to deal with your current environment.”

I hate myself for it, but what he’s saying is actually starting to make sense, in a Templeton-kind-of way. “You’ve been working on this for a while, haven’t you?” I ask him.

“The metaphoric molting speech? Nah, I only came up with that just now.” He takes another mouthful of coffee, and slides the cup back in front of me, disgusted. “You know, you really need to stop putting so much sugar in your coffee, Professor Donhelle. It’s going to be the death of you.”

No it’s not Templeton Rate. You are.

If I hadn’t stayed there believing his lies.

I take a gulp of coffee myself, before committing to any further moves.

 ………

From the field journal of Professor I. Donhelle:

The process in which Pacific Gulls (Larus pacificus) will attract a mate is through regurgitation. A male will bring food to the nest site in an island colony, and regurgitate a half-digested mixture of fish, krill and squid at the feet of the female, who eagerly accepts the gift and slurps it up.

Sometimes it’s not romantic. It’s simply about what a girl is looking for in a guy.

………

Through the window, I notice that the snow geese have persevered, and they continue along their predetermined migratory path.

“Do you wish that was you up there?” Templeton asks the moment the geese disappear from sight.

I only need a second to answer him. “I think it’s unavoidable in this line of work. Imagine if we knew what it felt like to fly like that.” I drop my empty coffee cup into the garbage beside our table, before embellishing my desires. “You know the Prudential Tower? I see it every morning as I leave my building. Sometimes I see ring-billed gulls perched at the top of the building, just waiting for me to come around the corner fifty-two floors below them. At least, that’s what I imagine they’re waiting for. Then they’ll jump off the edge and freefall for a moment. For just one short moment they’re stuck in the air, attached to nothing but that piece sky. And I know those gulls are making sure I can see them, because they know that’s the moment I wish I could have. That’s the moment that I’m most jealous of.”

His dark brown eyes finally pierce right through my moment of weakness.

 ………

From the field journal of Professor I. Donhelle:

The process in which Templeton Rate attracts his mate is simply through a few days of clever planning. First he will follow her. It’s not any specific pattern; maybe he’ll stand beside her on a bus. Maybe sit next to her in a sordid diner or a university library. Once proper conversation has been initiated, and adequate interest has been piqued, he will temporarily disappear from sight, and slowly begin invading her personal life. He’ll plant traces himself, in her paperwork for example. He’ll appear in her classroom. Making a fool of himself is not out of the question, but the end result will most assuredly involve those dark brown eyes and their ability to exploit any possible weakness in his potential mate, whereupon sexual collapse is inevitable.

Again, I suppose it’s all about what a girl is looking for in a guy.

 ………

And that’s exactly how I succumbed to Templeton Rate. I couldn’t resist it any longer. It was almost unfair in a way. I suppose that’s why mating rituals work so well though; it’s always going to be a lopsided victory for one side.

If I actually carried pepper spray in my purse, I probably would have blinded him that first night on the bus. But because I didn’t, because I’ve never considered myself vulnerable and defenseless, any portent of fear had passed me by unnoticed, and left me with nothing but the ache of desire.

In retrospect, I suppose it would have been more prudent and a much smarter move, both personally and professionally, to at least wait until we had left the building. I tackled him right there in a dark corner of the Hawthorne University library. Locking my fingers into his hair. Digging my nails into his skull. Between chewing on his lips and striking his teeth with mine, my tongue was finding it’s way shockingly far down his throat. I didn’t want to ruin the mood with ridiculous thoughts, although I felt I must have looked like a youngling feeding from the mouth of its regurgitating mother.

This sexuality was flowing from somewhere I never knew existed. Thanks to the cigarette taste of Templeton’s kisses, I’m reminded of Claude. It’s not pleasant, but it’s a deeply personal memory that supersedes any temporary disgust. A part of me was thankful that Nickwelter had quit smoking long before I’d ever kissed him, while another part of me had secretly always hoped he’d pick up another cigarette one day. The feeling was still there yesterday morning, when I’d made those embarrassing moves on him in the back of his car. But where Nickwelter resisted, Templeton was only encouraging me.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but I recall now the shushing from across the study area had quickly turned into roaring applause.

Formally and informally, my class was officially over.

NEXT CHAPTER

Molt – Chapter Eight

Hedge Interlude

SAINT FRANCIS ELEMENTARY in Ville Constance, Quebec is where I attended school from kindergarten to grade seven. All along the contour of the school ran a thick hedge. There was about a foot of space between the hedge and the outside of the school through which many of the kids would run. Due to potential damage caused to the shrubbery, and the possibility of medical issues such as skin rashes and allergies, the school made it clear that no kids were allowed to run behind the hedge. But of course they all did. Except for predictably-boring Isabelle Rochelle Donhelle. I always wanted to, since my friends all did and it seemed like it would be fun, but I obediently followed every single rule that was clearly laid out before me. It’s some sort of inborn anomaly of mine. I always wondered what it would feel like though, charging through the brush, avoiding other kids coming from the opposite direction. I imagined what else might be found back there: wonderful treasures and hidden clubhouses with secret passwords and handshakes. I also considered the possibility that there would be scary animals back there too, and poorly trained kids using that prohibited area as a makeshift bathroom. So I did what I was told to do. I lived the life that I was instructed to live. I played by all of the rules that no one else would. I remained safe and sheltered.

I went back to Saint Francis on my way home from high school one day, during my first week at Doneau High. There was no one around. Without a thought, I put my backpack down on the ground and I ran behind the hedge. I followed it all around the outside wall of the school, running the entire way. I tried to be careful, but the branches scratched my face and I bruised my shoulder and knee along the solid red brick wall. Some of the branches had thorns, and one snagged my shirt, tearing a hole in it. I even muddied my favorite shoes.

I emerged right where I began, and stood in place for a few minutes, catching my breath. I checked my forehead for blood and removed the knots and leaves from my hair. Picking up my backpack, I limped home alone and embarrassed. My mother made me remove my dirty clothes on the porch in the freezing cold before I could come inside. And I wondered why I had ever made such an impulsive decision in the first place.

As silly as that story may seem, it’s had a significant impact on how I would choose to deal with change in my life from that point on. It was a very simple decision: I would avoid it.

NEXT CHAPTER

Molt – Chapter Seven

The First Day of Snow

TUESDAY, OCTOBER SEVENTH. It’s a bitter cold morning as I pull into the University parking lot. I lock my door just as the first snowflake of the season lands on my eyelid. It’s not the sudden chill of this ice on my face that sends a shiver down my spine; it’s the sudden knowledge of what this day is. This is the first day of snow. Over the years, I have not had the best of success on the first days of snow.

The first day of snow was the day my grandmother died. The first day of snow was the first time I got my period. Last year was a double whammy: I had my wisdom teeth removed on the first day of snow, and when I returned home from the dentist that afternoon, I opened my door to find that my apartment had been broken into. Claude was untouched, but the rest of the apartment was a mess. I remember yelling at the snow from my open window that night. Even though the pain from oral surgery was unbearable, I had to let the snow know how I felt once and for all. But with fluffy words like “dang” and “hula-hoop” of course. I can’t recall the context in which I used the word hula-hoop exactly, but I’m sure it had applied.

The snowflake has already melted from my eyelid and I fool myself in the hope that maybe it’s just a false alarm. I turn to the front doors of the school, I think about the report in my bag with the name Templeton Rate on it, and I wonder just what might be in store for me behind those doors today. On this day: the first day of snow.

I’m sorting papers as I sit at my desk in the lecture hall, waiting for my Avian Science class to begin. If any of these students would stop texting long enough to actually notice me, they’d probably note that I’m doing a very poor job at looking like I’m sorting papers.

Last night I was imagining what I’d say to this man who disappeared out of thin air last week. An angel is what Sylvie had suggested he was.

Just one more from the litter of angels.

Last night, I wanted to ask him whether he followed me into The Strangest Feeling on purpose or if it was merely a coincidence.

Last night, I wanted to ask him why he abandoned me there, and where exactly he’d disappeared to.

Last night, I wanted him to apologize to me for what had happened.

Last night, I wanted to know how the paper with his name on it fell into my hands.

But that was last night. Right now I just wanted to see him again.

If I hadn’t wanted to see him again.

As I contemplate all of this, I zone out a little. The stack of over-shuffled papers in my hand almost falls to the floor. I need to focus, and get things started here. I don’t know how many students should be in this class, but most of them appear to be here, so I rise from my desk and get on with it.

“Who here can tell me the step-by-step process by which a bird will molt?” A hand is raised, and I’m sure I’ve never seen this girl before. “Yes? Go ahead.”

“Molting is cyclical, right? Birds shed older feathers, which are replaced by pin feathers. Once the pin feathers become full, the older ones will shed again.”

Blue checkmark. A molt will occur at least once a year for adult birds, and in some species, up to as many as four times. Because feathers take up anywhere from five to fourteen percent of a bird’s total body weight, molting requires an enormous amount of its energy. I know this because I have to know this.

“That’s good. Thank you…um, Tanya.”

“Haley.”

Whatever. I take a sip of my coffee. This morning’s selection is a French vanilla latté. Non-fat. No whip cream. The barista who made it wrote ‘N-V-L’ on the side of the cup. Sadly, I’m starting to recognize the handwriting of the various employees.

“Can anyone specify the proper order in which feathers will molt?” Four hands go up, and I make my selection. “John?”

“Jack.”

Close enough.

“Generally,” Jack continues, “a molt begins from the bird’s head, progressing downwards to its wings and torso, and finishing with the tail feathers. Is that correct?”

He’s absolutely right. Blue checkmark. Many birds’ feathers are molted progressively in waves, beginning on the head, face and throat, and extending backward towards the tail. Usually, there is a symmetrical loss of feathers from both sides of the body, which balances feather loss, so that the bird can maintain its energy levels and function normally. I know this because I have to know this.

“I’ll accept that. Are there any examples of a molt that can take place outside of a bird’s standard molting period?”

No hands are raised. But after a few moments to think it over, one student takes the plunge. I gesture an open palm towards him, giving him the go-ahead to share his thoughts.

“How about a frightmolt?” he asks.

“Go on,” I urge him.

“Well, a frightmolt is sometimes activated through fright or fear. In frightmolt, the rectrices are shed most frequently, as are the smaller feathers of the breast and the dorsal tracts. In this type of molt, the bird usually retains the feathers from its head and wings.”

This kid’s been studying, whoever he is. Blue checkmark. In frightmolt, a peculiar molt unique to only a few types of birds such as Passenger Pigeons (Ectopistes migratorius), Mourning Doves (Zenaida macroura) and some upland game birds, feathers are simply expelled or dropped. The slightest contact or pressure will relax the muscles of the feather follicle, and the quill is set free. I know this because I have to know this.

I don’t waste my time in an attempt to identify this student; I simply move on to my next question. “Can anyone think of other biological examples of molting? Not just in birds?”

And then I hear a voice from the hall. Everyone hears it, and rows of heads turn in unison to have a look towards the door.

And I knew it wouldn’t be long.

“I thought this was ornithology?”

I take in that glorious mop of hair over those hauntingly dark eyes. Some dirt still marks his face. It’s Templeton Rate all right, leaning on the frame of the open door.

“That’s correct,” I say. I won’t let him shake me. “This is Avian Science.”

“Well let’s get back to the birds then, huh?” He moves deftly up the steps to find an empty seat next to some skinny brunette that I instantly dislike.

If that skinny brunette had been telling this story, I certainly wouldn’t read it.

He’s snuck up on me again. I feel totally unprepared for what’s happening here. But I’m a professional. I will not be put in my place. Not in my class. “Not quite yet Fauntleroy.”

“It’s Templeton actually.”

“Pardon me. My point was that sometimes it’s important to be aware of how other animals evolve in order to find the exact answers you’re looking for.”

“Do tell, Professor Donhelle,” he quips sharply. Some of the other students snicker a little at his abrasiveness. I can feel him trying to turn my class against me.

“Of course,” I begin, “the most obvious example would be in reptiles, where a snake will shed its skin. Or how about in mammals, when old hairs fall out, only to be replaced again? And molting is known as ecdysis in arthropods, such as when a crayfish sheds its exoskeleton.”

“Simply fascinating,” he says, in his most un-fascinated tone. “Let me ask you this though. Can’t molting be a psychological process as well as a physical one?”

Red circle.

“You mean in the figurative sense?”

“To molt is to change, correct? It’s a transformation into someone or something else. Psychologically or physically. Temporarily or permanently.”

Another red circle. If this were any other student on any other day, I probably would have excused them from the lecture hall for being so antagonistic. I’m not the kind to simply put up with unjustified hostility in my class. And yet, Templeton Rate has a sneaky way of getting me to listen to his every word.

“Don’t you agree?” he asks me. Without another response from me, Templeton looks around him for some endorsement. “Do any of you agree?” I catch some nervous eyes as they dart around the room; the students are starting to wonder where this conversation is headed, and whether or not it might hold any relevance to what will be on their next exam. “Aren’t any of you paying attention in this class?” And truthfully, I’m starting to wonder if I should be taking notes as well.

“Change is one thing Templeton,” I finally say. “It’s a small shift in behavior. It’s taking the bus home instead of an offered ride. It’s drinking your first coffee, or smoking your first cigarette. But evolution dictates another thing entirely.”

“Not to me it doesn’t.”

“Well, that being said, fact will always win out over opinion.”

“Is that a fact?” The brunette beside him shifts away from Templeton, just a little closer towards the wall. Maybe my dislike for her was not quite as justified as I had first thought.

“Yes it is.”

Lacking any better answer, all I get from Templeton is, “Well, that’s just your opinion Professor.”

Again, red circle.

……..

Just over an hour later my class is finished. Not soon enough though. Templeton Rate kept to himself for pretty much the remainder of the lecture; he was scribbling something down on a piece of paper the entire time. I couldn’t avoid being a little bit distracted by his presence. And I don’t work well with distractions. It was as though my class was the Power Of Science, and Templeton was that smelly, bloodied raven.

The students begin to file out, on to live the rest of their lives. Templeton coolly walks to the front of the lecture hall, picks up my empty coffee cup and tosses it into the recycling bin. He sits in its place on the edge of my desk as I try to piece it all together.

“How have you been, beautiful?” he asks.

I take a peek at the coffee cup in the garbage, and I wonder if there might have been at least one more cold drop left. “I’ve been a lot less wired,” I say to him. “I think I’ve had too much coffee lately.”

“So, where did you disappear to on Thursday night?” he has the nerve to ask me.

“Excuse me?”

“I came back from the can, and you were gone. That horrible cheese bread made me shit like a goose.” I’m unimpressed by his language, but I’m a little more astonished by his on-the-spot avian simile. Geese spend most of their waking hours consuming mass amounts of vegetation, but their digestion is rapid and inefficient. As such, they excrete feces almost nonstop.

“So what’s the deal?” he continues, “I thought I still owed you another cup of coffee?”

“Actually, you owe me a meal as well now, since I had to pay for two.”

“Well then, how’s tonight sound?”

“I don’t think so Templeton. I’ve got more papers to mark. And if they’re as bad last night’s bunch, I won’t be going anywhere tomorrow night either.” I start collecting my materials, although I just have to ask him, “How can you blame me for ditching you last week? I looked for you at the diner, but you were gone.”

“I was in the ladies room. Maybe you didn’t notice in your exhaustive search, but that men’s room was more than just a little bit revolting.”

Maybe I noticed? Perhaps only if I had lost all five of my senses, would there have been any doubt. Now that I think of it though, I probably should have checked the ladies room as well as the men’s, just to be sure.

Before I can ask Templeton anything about the case of the magically appearing report he’d written, he’s already generating some new problems for me. “I’ve got another paper for you to look at. I wrote it right now, during class.”

I try my best to downplay any interest. “Wonderful. I’m sure it’s another brilliant opus.” I wish my façade were the truth, and that I really wasn’t interested. That would make things so much easier. But how do I change the subject? And do I really want to? “You wrote a full paper in the last hour?” I ask him, hoping the end to this conversation might be getting a tiny bit closer. “How is that possible?”

“Well, I don’t know what constitutes a full paper, but it is two pages.”

“I’d say more than two pages.”

“Actually, it’s more like one-and-a-half. And double-spaced. And I did some of it last night while I was working.”

“The doorman thing, right?”

“Yeah, that’s right. It’s nice to know you were paying attention to the details.” He unfolds two pieces of paper from inside his coat pocket, and holds them out for me. I notice his hands are covered with tiny scrapes and scratches, all in various states of healing. “I had to borrow some paper from that babe next to me though.”

“I knew you were the kind of guy that copied answers.”

“I don’t know if that would help me much in this class. Everyone here seems a little tardy.”

“Tardy means late. I think you mean retarded?”

Templeton presses, and waves the papers in his hand. “Well, are you going to take a look at it or what?”

I’m careful to not get any of the dirt from the paper on my fingers as I scan all one-and-a-half double-spaced pages. Like the report I read through last night, this one is also written in charcoal. All things considered though, his penmanship is still quite reasonable. The content, however, is anything but. It’s just more of the same unsubstantiated randomness as Templeton’s previous paper. Actually, it’s even worse, as if on purpose. I mean, someone would really have to be trying pretty hard to get his facts any more wrong than this, but he’s managed to pull it off.

Red circle.

I’m almost too distracted by what’s going on around me to remember what the most important issue here really is. “Why exactly are you giving me these papers anyway? As far as I knew, you’re not enrolled at Hawthorne.”

“Who said I am? I never told you I was.”

“Well, are you or aren’t you?”

“Why wouldn’t I be?” he replies defensively. “I’d have to be pretty fucking bored with my life to have nothing better to do than hang out with a bunch of retarded bird-watchers in my free time.”

I hand the papers back to him. “You’re a very perplexing individual, Templeton Rate.”

“So that’s what you like about me. I was wondering what it would be exactly.” Templeton re-folds his masterpiece and slips it back into his pocket. “Listen, the reason I’m here is to learn. And the reason you’re here, in case you didn’t know, is to teach people like me.”

“People like you?”

“It’s all very simple, Professor Donhelle.”

He’s got me right where he wants me. And something inside me simply doesn’t want to fight it anymore. So I get up on the figurative diving board…

“I suppose if you’re free later tonight, I’d be willing to meet you in the library for some extra help. How would six o’clock work for you?”

Templeton leans right in my face. And am I mistaken, or is that cheese bread still wedged between his two front teeth? “Really?” he asks, almost surprised by my offer.

…And I take the figurative plunge.

“You’re right. It is my job. I would be doing a disservice to this school if I didn’t offer you my help. You could obviously use it.”

If I didn’t offer him that extra help.

“Look at you,” he says with a victorious smile. “You are molting. Right before my eyes.”

He turns away from me and exits the lecture hall, his last words trailing from beyond the door. “Let’s make it six-thirty. I’ve got another class this afternoon. See you then.”

I look back in the trash at the empty cup of coffee, and I wonder if I have just made a big mistake. On this day: the first day of snow.

NEXT CHAPTER

Molt – Chapter Six

Unnecessary E’s

I HAVE NO idea who Phil Ferguson is, but I know he’s smarter than this. I could never pick Pat Vargas out from a crowd, but I can tell you where Pat will be this time next year. I have no emotional attachments in any way to Caren Kessler, but I’m the one who’s going help decide her future, aren’t I? I can’t help it if they all seem the same to me though.

All birds are called ‘birds.’ There are so many families of birds, so many different phylums, classes and orders, that it’s nearly impossible to learn every one of them. They have to first be broken down into more basic categories. Field identification teaches us to use locomotion (walking, hopping, swimming and flight patterns) and habitat (birds of a sea coast, shorebirds, wire and fencepost sitters, deciduous forest and marsh birds) as useful starting points for identification. Noting the silhouettes of flying birds is useful too; the shape of the wings, whether pointed or rounded, narrow or broad, slotted or unslotted; the length of the neck and tail in proportion to body length; the position of the feet, and whether they extend beyond the body and tail while in flight, or if they’re tucked in close to the body.

By comparison, all students are simply ‘students.’ So many come and go – from year to year, from class to class – there’s no way I can possibly identify them all. All I have to go by are the reports that I mark, and the grades that I assign to them.

This is what I’m doing tonight. After what happened between Professor Nickwelter and I this morning, I almost dragged myself to The Strangest Feeling again, but by now I figure Templeton Rate is probably busy chasing some other naïve girl around Boston anyway. It’s just as well, I suppose. I told myself earlier today that it was time for me to move on, so here I am marking papers and trying to imagine who exactly these students really are. But I’m not quite ‘moving on,’ am I? Since I’m doing precisely what I was doing this time a week ago.

On a Monday night, in my humble one-bedroom apartment conveniently located above the Starbucks on Newbury Street, I sit alone at my desk with my Tanzanian Ol Doinyo Lengai blend: full-bodied, with hints of herbal, peppery notes. Marking my students’ papers, I systematically use a blue checkmark for every correct notation, and a red circle for every wrong one. The desktop background on my computer is the same Indian Blue Peafowl’s (Pavo cristatus) tail feather design that’s been there for the last eight months.

Sometimes when I’m feeling wild, I use a green marker for the checkmarks instead of blue. If this isn’t screaming lonely, I don’t think I could be trying any harder.

Phil Ferguson is correct when he says one can identify the Eastern Meadowlark (Sturnella magna) as alternating its flight pattern between sailing with the wings spread and flying with rapid wing-beats. However, he’s wrong when he states that the Eastern Kingbird (Tyrannus tyrannus) has an undulating flight pattern. The kingbird flies in a straight line, with continuously quivering wing action. Red circle. I’m thinking that Phil is the kid that’s always trying hard to get noticed; he tries so hard that he ends up being right only half the time.

Caren Kessler made the mistake of claiming that a particular bird spotted on a telephone wire outside her Inman Square apartment was a Scarlet Tanager (Piranga olivacea), which is a deciduous forest bird. I’m sure what she described must have actually been a Barn Swallow (Hirundo rustica), which she would have recognized had she noted the obvious forked tail. Red circle. I’ll bet she’s the kid with the inch-thick glasses that can never see my projection screen. The one with attention deficit disorder that won’t allow her to go an entire class without running out of the lecture hall for some reason or another.

But Pat Vargas is dead on when he says the European Starling (Sturnus vulgaris) can be identified in the winter by their speckled plumage, while after the season it is more of a glossy black. Blue checkmark. Could this be that quiet kid in the back, who always dresses in a different camouflage pattern for each day of the week? With his knowledge of wildlife, I’ll bet he’s done some hunting in his free time too.

Of course, Pat could just as easily be a girl. It’s all just insufficient data at this point.

I know everything there is to know about birds because I have to know everything there is to know. I also know it all because I’ve always had this innate ability to catalogue such information. Call it a gift or call it a curse, but all I know is that, academically speaking, I’ve breezed through my entire life at the top of my grade curve.

I take a deep breath, a sip of my coffee and a long look around me at this nest I’ve built for myself. The nest crafted from the sticks and leaves and mud of my past. Nestled quietly on one of my bookshelves is a tiny black and white picture of my family. Mom. Dad. Me. No brothers or sisters shared this moment with us. It was the last year I lived in Ville Constance. I believe the picture was from a holiday dinner at the orphanage, and I think one of the kids must have taken it, since the angle is a little off. But I really can’t remember.

I don’t know if I’ve ever spoken with Tyler Izen, but he’s tried to convince me in his reports that the Barn Owl (Tyto alba) uses sonar to find its prey in complete darkness. Of course, the truth is that barn owls utilize echolocation to catch prey in the dark, where their facial discs form receptors that bounce sound between their ears. Their two ears are of different heights, which helps them to localize sounds and pinpoint the precise location of movement and its direction, so they can catch prey in darkness or scuttling underneath leaves and snow. I know this because I have to. If I don’t know it, then Tyler Izen never will. But who the stink is Tyler Izen anyway? Red circle.

I started collecting all of this information back in high school. Yes, that’s right; it was about the same time that Mrs. Wyatt wouldn’t let me play for the basketball team.

I wouldn’t be here now if I didn’t score perfect on my biology finals; if I didn’t join the Doneau High science club; if I had never met Cindey Fellowes; if I wasn’t rejected from the basketball team.

Rejection after disappointment after misery. That’s all that your life adds up to, especially when you pick the worst possible moment to look back on it all.

…………

Cindey Fellowes was the kind of girl that always wanted so desperately to be noticed, that nobody knew exactly who she really was. I was looking over the list of girls who had been cut from the basketball team, and I was upset when I read my name on the initial list. Right there at the top, although it wasn’t even alphabetical. Cindey was looking over a similar list next to me, when she found out she had been cut from the Doneau High volleyball team, and after only one tryout. She told me how she’d been cut from pretty much everything at the school, so she was planning on joining the science club instead. Mostly just to feel as though she was a part of something, and partly because no one could ever get cut from the science club. I think that after only a minute of talking to this girl, I had felt as though I needed to be a part of something too.

If I wasn’t rejected from the basketball team.

That was part of the charm of Cindey Fellowes: she despised herself so much that she made others hate themselves too. Charm? That’s not quite the right word, but it’s close enough I suppose.

If Cindey Fellowes had been telling this story, she’d make you think it was all your fault.

…………

Jonah Mitcherson has three full pages of blue checkmarks, but when he turns the page to see the giant red circle around his descriptive and informative writings on the Rufous Hornero (Furnarius rufus), he’s going to regret he had Professor Donhelle checking his facts for him. At least I assume he was talking about the rufous hornero, since he continued to refer to it as an Ovenbird (Seiurus aurocapillus), which is actually a warbler. Jonah’s confusion no doubt lies in the fact that the rufous hornero is a member of the genus Furnarius, and that the horneros family are also known as ovenbirds. I know that the bird in question was actually the rufous hornero since he described it as building mud nests that resemble old wood-fired ovens. I know this because I have to know this. It can be easy to accidentally mix up genus and species, but this is one of the most careless mistakes I’ve come across this semester. I’ll wager Mr. Mitcherson did some rushed and heedless internet searches to write this paper; never actually cross-checking whether or not his information was correct before heading out to the pub to get liquored up with his booze-head pals. And yet, I’m somehow finding myself envying his social life.

…………

The Doneau High yearbook labeled us ‘The Science Club,’ but we were really just a bunch of kids with different science-related academic interests thrown together in a room after school because we had no other place we could fit in. I guess that was the truth behind most clubs actually. I was even more pathetic, since I didn’t even have a science-related interest at the time; I was just there because Cindey told me she’d be there.

As much time as Cindey and I spent together in school, we never saw much of one another outside the halls of Doneau High. Her family lived on a farm, just outside of town. The school bus would pick her up every morning, and take her home every afternoon, but I had never actually seen where she lived. Cindey claimed her home life was normal, but I always wondered about the details of this self-proclaimed normal existence. As boring as Ville Constance was, I didn’t think anybody here could ever be categorized as normal. We would see each other every morning before class, we would eat lunch together and then spend another ten or fifteen minutes after school together. Interrupted by two months of Claude, that is. And just like Claude and I had our own special place on the yellow electrical box behind the gymnasium, Cindey and I had the science clubhouse, known more affectionately to the rest of the school as ‘Room 210.’

I know what you’re thinking though. Aside from sitting around reading Power Of Science textbooks and quizzing each other on anything and everything from genealogy to protists, just how did Cindey Fellowes have such a profound affect on the direction my future would take? As far as Cindey herself goes? Not much really. Friends in high school are friends due to circumstance much more so than because of compatibility. To be honest, those unnecessary E’s in her name really drove me bananas. The reason I bring up Cindey so much goes back to one of our after school science club cramming sessions.

Thinking back to that particular afternoon, I can remember myself, Cindey Fellowes, Darlene Turcotte and Sonia Desjardins. Of our regular group, only Julie-Anne Loucette wasn’t there. She told us she was getting her eyes checked that afternoon, but we all knew that she was secretly seeing Marc Courchaine after school. We were all quizzing one another on every subject imaginable, when suddenly, out of seemingly nowhere, something came crashing through the second floor window of Room 210. It startled every one of us; in fact I think Sonia might have even soiled herself, since she left the room before we even realized what had happened. I don’t think Sonia ever came back to the science club after that day, now that I think of it. Because I had befriended Cindey Fellowes, I was now sitting at a desk in Room 210 after school with blood-covered shards of glass in front of me.

If I hadn’t joined the Doneau High Science Club.

It was a raven that had flown through the window at that moment, and it was dying right there in front of me, bleeding on my textbook. Cindey and I carefully examined the poor bird, which was still alive, but suffering from tremendous pain. Darlene soon fled the classroom as well, off to retrieve someone at the school who had some kind of authority in matters concerning wildlife flying though windows.

I looked at Cindey, with eyes so wide as if to say “this is the most important, most significant moment of our lives.” Cindey, however, was simply grossed out by the entire event. While her heart was persuading her to wrap the unfortunate animal up in loose-leaf paper and toss it back out the window, my heart was letting me know that I didn’t have any use for Cindey Fellowes from that moment on. But I needed her to get me to that day with the bleeding raven on my desk. It’s all connected. It’s all important.

If I hadn’t met Cindey Fellowes.

That’s all it took for me to pursue my ornithological interests. The events from that afternoon all led to me enrolling at Hawthorne University of Applied Sciences in Boston, Massachusetts. I left my dysfunctional parents, Antonia the Ostrich, the litter of orphan angels, my best friend Cindey Fellowes, my non-boyfriend Claude, the Doneau High basketball team, my bloodied science textbook and the whole godforsaken town of Ville Constance behind me for good.

…………

I’m reading a report written by some kid named David Lee. Some idiot kid who has no idea that there’s a difference between the Laurel Pigeon (Columba junoniae) and the Bolle’s Pigeon (Columba bolli). Obviously, brown, rather than dark gray plumage and the lack of dark bands on the gray tail distinguish the laurel pigeon from its popular Canary Island relative. I know this because I have to know this. I can’t believe they think that they’re impressing me with any of this information. Red circle.

I stop for a moment, and look at the phone across the room. I take a second to think about calling my mother back. My twenty-ninth birthday was four days ago, and what, she calls me last night? Three days late? I stay put at my desk, send her a quick and emotionless thank-you email and leave it at that.

Skimming through Lester Coolidge’s paper, I notice he’s catalogued, or attempted to catalogue the calls of woodpeckers around the world. Sorry Lester, wrong on pretty much every account. Let me correct these for you: The Red-Headed Woodpecker (Melanerpes erythrocephalus), deciduous of southern Canada and eastern/central United States, produces a ‘tchur-tchur’ sound, while the Gila Woodpecker (Melanerpes uropygialis) found in desert regions of south-western United States has a similar, but more rolling ‘churr’ call. And finally, the Grey Woodpecker (Dendropicos goertae), common in much of equatorial Africa, has a very distinctive loud and fast ‘peet-peet-peet-peet’ call. I know this because I have to know this. I’d say ‘A’ for effort, but it doesn’t seem as though there was much effort put forth. Red circle. My red marker is drying up fast.

I turn my eyes towards the wall clock, as it silently ticks to 11:28. It’s just about time for the nightly arrival of the delivery truck downstairs. Exactly one minute later I hear my blown-glass Atlantic puffin trinket rattle against the window overlooking Public Alley 434. Every night this truck pulls into the alley behind my apartment with all of the next day’s frappuccino, cappuccino and macchiato supplies. Not to mention the boxes full of metal thermoses, corrugated cardboard coffee cup sleeves and wooden stir sticks. All of this used to bother me to no end, until four days ago that is: last Thursday night at The Strangest Feeling, when my caffeine addiction was first conceived. Now I’m sitting here with a cold coffee on my desk and wondering just how much they can fit into the back of that delivery truck.

I have only one thing of extreme importance in my apartment. Sure, I do have the same horrible habit as most people for keeping small, sentimental, yet ultimately insignificant items around me. Items like the letter from my sister Antonia that sits folded inside its original envelope, and rests safely between some books on my shelf. She wrote to me when I first moved to Boston and promised to write again just as soon as she was adopted. I never heard from Antonia again. A pink plastic lighter that fell out of Claude’s pocket fifteen years ago, and now sits at the bottom of the drawer of my bedside table. I found it sitting in the rocks around the yellow electrical box the day after he dumped me, and for reasons that will probably become clear on a psychiatrist’s sofa one day, I decided to keep it for myself. The two pieces of rock-hard gum from The Strangest Feeling that lay inside a tiny wicker basket on my kitchen counter. I wonder if I’ll ever tear open the paper wrap and read the sugar-stained cartoons inside. Probably one day, when I really need a laugh.

But the only item of real importance within my nest is my parrot, a Blue-and-Gold Macaw (Ara ararauna), who I have sympathetically and pathetically named Claude. I suppose some names are impossible to forget, aren’t they?

There are two families of parrots: the true parrots (Psittacidae) and the cockatoos (Cacatuidae). Cockatoos are quite distinct, having a movable head crest, different arrangement of the carotid arteries, a gall bladder, and a lack of the Dyck texture feathers that produce the vibrant blue and green colors found in true parrots. This coloration is due to a texture effect in microscopic portions of the feather itself that scatters light. The spectacular red feathers of certain parrots owe their vibrancy to a rare set of pigments found nowhere else in nature.

Claude was rescued by Professor Nickwelter while on a university birding expedition in Brazil five years ago, and was brought back to the school for the purposes of rehabilitation and study. The poor bird had fallen victim to a horrible device common in that part of the world: a claw-like metal spring trap set in the trees, which clamps onto its prey and drops to the ground for capture. Most of these traps are set to capture rare birds, to keep as pets or to sell overseas, but sometimes they are simply cruel torture devices. The poor bird must have been clawing for life for possibly a day or two before Professor Nickwelter came along, it’s left wing almost completely severed. Suggesting that amputation of the wing and rehabilitation for the bird was the best thing to do, Nickwelter brought it back to Boston with him.

The parrot remained nameless for a couple of months, until Professor Nickwelter proposed that I pick a suitable name. Just one of the perks of dating your superior, I suppose. I decided that Claude would be the best fit for him. If the raven that flew through the window of Room 210 and landed on my textbook had actually lived I probably would have named him Claude too.

Macaws are monogamous and mate for life, but in captivity, an unmated macaw will bond primarily with one just person: their keeper. Since I had named him and spent more time with Claude than anyone else, he picked me. I formed such a unique bond with Claude, it was suggested that I bring him home with me.

I hear him rattling his beak along the bars, so I walk over to Claude’s modest, one-bedroom cage. He may be lacking the ability to fly anymore, but I still have to keep his cage locked tight, or else he’d chew up anything he could get his beak on. I toss in a new doggie chew-toy once a week to give him something other than metal bars to gnaw at.

Turning from his spectacular third-story view of Public Alley 434, Claude looks at me. “Poop,” he says, indicating that it’s dinnertime.
When I tried to teach Claude how to ask to be fed, I was getting frustrated and used the word “poop” as one of my famous curse word substitutes. He doesn’t know why I said it of course, but that’s now our codeword for food. I grab a measuring cup and a pre-arranged bag of mixed sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, pine nuts, almonds, dates and dried apple from the kitchen. There are some foods that are toxic to parrots, and to most birds in general. Cherry pits, avocados, chocolate and caffeine should be absolutely avoided. I wonder if he’s at all envious as I take another sip of my Tanzanian Ol Doinyo Lengai.

Claude’s solitary wing is not his only identifiable characteristic. He has a butterscotch-colored underbelly, where most macaws will be golden or orange. There’s also a thin gray fork-shaped line, it almost looks like a scar, running along the right side of his lower jaw. But everything about Claude is special to me. The look that he gives me when he wants something isn’t greed. It’s not using me to get his way. It’s not selfish happy birthdays or affairs. It’s not men.

It’s love; and I think that’s why I named him Claude in the first place. I suppose since I never got the chance to have that meaningful relationship with the Claude from my youth, I can just come home and not worry about who’s loving who the most.

The most curious thing about Claude is that I taught him how to count to ten, and he understands how to use the numbers one through ten, but he doesn’t understand eight. If I hold out five jellybeans, he can identify them as five. If I hold out ten, he knows there are ten. But if I have eight of anything, he’s stumped. He simply skips the number eight when counting. It’s strange, but love is about acceptance and compromise, isn’t it?

If Claude had been telling this story, he’d skip chapter eight.

“How many scoops Claude?” I ask, holding out the bag of food and the measuring cup.

“Two scoops,” he replies. It’s always two scoops. Macaws thrive on frequent interaction, and their high intelligence requires constant intellectual stimulation to satisfy their curiosity. Plus, it just makes him happy to answer my questions.

Now, after all that I know about macaws, Leonard Gillespie has the audacity to sneak into his report that a parrot’s feet are heterodactylic. He obviously was not paying any attention at all when I covered dactyly last week. Anisodactyly is the commonest arrangement of the digits, with three toes forward and one back. You’ll find this in perching birds and hunting birds. Parrots and other climbing birds are zygodactylic, with two toes in the front and two in the back, with the outside toes being longer than the inside toes. This is also found in cuckoos and roadrunners. Heterodactyly is similar to zygodactyly, except that the foot’s two long toes are arranged in the front, while the two short toes are situated in the back. I know this because I have to know this. Another sloppy mistake calls for another faded red circle.

Even Claude clucks his tongue in disappointment.

Reading through this last paper, it’s apparent that I may have to switch my marker colors; the red simply isn’t going to make it through to the end of this one. I’m not even sure what it is that I’m reading here; there are eleven pages of random, uneducated gobbledygook, all written in what appears to be charcoal:

CHICKENS CAN’T SWALLOW WHILE THEY ARE UPSIDE DOWN. AND THEY CAN’T SPIT WHILE THEY’RE RIGHT SIDE UP.

NORTH AMERICAN GEESE CANNOT COMMUNICATE WITH EUROPEAN GEESE BECAUSE OF THE LAUNGUAGE BARRIER.

DONALD DUCK’S MIDDLE NAME IS FAUNTLEROY.

I say the words out loud, mostly to check if it sounds as dumb spoken as it does on paper. “Donald Fauntleroy Duck?” If any of this is actually true, maybe I don’t know everything there is to know about birds after all. The report is complete trash. I’m not even sure why I flip back to the cover page to check the name, since I won’t know who this person is anyway. Since every kid in that lecture hall is just a name to me, and nothing more. But I check anyway.

My jaw drops. How can this be?

“Templeton Rate?”

NEXT CHAPTER

Molt – Chapter Five

My Nest Away From Nest

MONDAY, OCTOBER SIXTH. Hawthorne University of Applied Sciences is located in Boston, Massachusetts. The school is just off of Huntington Avenue, on Parker Street. Hawthorne was founded in 1932 by Nelson Hatch, who had also been an esteemed member of the National Audubon Society. The school has always had a strong connection to the Audubon Society (Anton Frye, the university’s current Dean of the Faculty, is also an Audubon member) and the ornithology program is the only reason students even attend Hawthorne as it is widely regarded as one of the best in the world. Greater Boston has over thirty-five university campuses, and the likes of Harvard, UMass, and MIT leave Hawthorne and its bird program in some rather large educational shadows. But if you know birds, you’ve heard of Hawthorne University, and if you never studied there you wished you did.

It’s Monday morning and I find myself getting back to my nauseatingly monotonous routine. Or is it monotonously nauseating? I won’t bore you with the mundane details of the route delays on my way to work, but I still somehow managed to arrive earlier than usual. It seemed unusually usual, or something along those lines. I’m not even sure what that means exactly, but that was exactly how I felt: there was something so very not right with the way the morning felt, that it didn’t seem to worry me in the least. Unusually usual.

The radio this morning tells me that the six swan boats from the lagoon in Boston’s Public Garden were stolen last night. The famous boats had been moored to the dock waiting for the return of spring, but somehow somebody bird-napped all six of the giant fiberglass Mute Swans (Cygnus olor). It’s one of the strangest crimes I’ve ever heard of, and there’s no leads as of yet. Sometimes the reasons for why so many people do so many ridiculous and cruel things can really surprise me.

I pull into the university staff parking lot, park my car and turn the engine off. It’s bitter cold, but my gloved hands are wrapped around the giant-sized cup of Brazilian Copacabana Beach Bourbon blend. I learned from the coffee menu board that the Copacabana Bourbon is a nutty blend with subtle cocoa notes. A mild and pleasing complexity. Who knew how fascinatingly diverse a cup of coffee could be?

I stay in my car for a few more minutes in an attempt to mentally plan out my day. I do this sometimes; I try to decide how the day will unfold before it actually happens. One time I was pretty dead on, but that was one positive note out of who knows how many miserable days I’ve had here. Okay, I admit it’s not as bad here as I make it out to be, but this is how you subconsciously see your world when there’s a giant void that needs filling: you hope that it gets filled as soon as possible, so that you can simply get on with your life. You imagine everything else just falling into place after that.

Right now, I’m wondering what new blend of coffee I’ll try after work, and I’m also imagining that I’ll be able to avoid Jerry Humphries all day.

I look up from my seat, and I notice Professor Nickwelter’s car right in front of mine, facing me. This isn’t his usual spot, so I just assume that a substitute instructor or some clueless student took Nickwelter’s regular parking space. I stare at the car for a minute, remembering a time when I was all too familiar with the sight of it: a black Honda of some sort with the same long, twisted crack in the windshield. If I was in the passenger’s seat and I looked through the splintered window at just the right angle, I could see two cars in front of me when there should only have been one. Maybe two shining Hancock Towers instead of one. Perhaps two Willets (Tringa semipalmata) flying above the traffic in front of me. The long, stout bill and distinctive black and white underwing pattern easily identify a willet. Or I might have been lucky enough to see two setting suns, turning the Massachusetts skies into an amazing concoction of brilliant reds, oranges and blues. The most beautiful of these colors would seem trapped right there between that crack. I always tried to keep my head in just the right position, so as to make the most out of my travels with the conversationally-challenged Professor Nickwelter.

I decide to get out of my car and take a closer look, telling myself this is purely for old time’s sake. I sling my bag over my shoulder, and with books and coffee in hand I walk closer to the scratch on the hood from when I tossed him the set of keys he’d forgotten from my apartment window. There must have been thirty or so keys on that one big metal ring. I never had a clue as to what they were all for.

There’s the dented hubcap from when he tried to make a point about how reliable his Honda was. “See, you can knock it as hard as you want, and the car can take it,” he said, giving it a good, hard kick. The hubcap flew right off, and we had to hammer out the indent from the toe of his shoe to fit it back on again. His designer shoe from Italy, of course. Much like his car, for some reason Professor Nickwelter never liked anything that was made in America. Which is why I think he was attracted to me in the first place.

I peer in through the front passenger’s window, and imagine myself sitting beside him again. Those seats were almost unbearable, not because of the make of the car, but because Nickwelter’s wife sat in this car more often than I ever did. Beth Nickwelter has a much larger frame than I do, so this seat had conformed to her shape much better than mine. I was swimming in the seat of my boyfriend’s wife.

It was on a class field trip a few years ago, when Nickwelter first made his intentions clear. I was the student and he was the teacher. Myself and a few more of his students accompanied Professor Nickwelter to Cape Cod to take part in the Christmas Bird Count, an annual count of bird life taken primarily during the Christmas week. Groups of birders from the U.S. and Canada are assigned a day and an area fifteen miles in diameter, and they make a list of all wild birds they see on that day. The twenty-seven of us reported one hundred and thirty-three species that day, the majority being the 4474 Herring Gulls (Larus argentatus) and the 4051 Dunlins (Calidris alpina). Unusual species we had spotted were the Least Sandpiper (Calidris minutilla) and the Blue-Gray Gnatcatcher (Polioptila caerulea), of which we saw two of each. I almost missed the one Northern Saw-Whet Owl (Aegolius acadicus) entirely when my teacher and I were making out in the woods.

I felt horrible about having a relationship with a married man; it was probably the worst thing I’d ever done. But Professor Nickwelter loved me much more than he ever loved his wife, even though he never told me so. Those three little words that every girl waits to hear were never spoken. At least not to me anyway. I’m twenty-nine now and I’m still waiting for someone to tell me they love me.

If I hadn’t slept with Professor Nickwelter.

I run my fingers along the edge of the roof as I try to remember everything I can about this car. But then suddenly, my stomach seems to jump into my mouth; there’s someone in the backseat! I jump back awkwardly, tripping over my own feet. The coffee spills on the ground and one of my textbooks hits the back door as it flies from my grasp. Did this person see me? Was he watching me the entire time? I only hope that I can retrieve my book and get out of sight before some vagabond in the back of Nickwelter’s car jumps out and grabs me.

I try to reach for my book without getting too close to the car, but then the window rolls down and Professor Nickwelter sticks his head out. “Isabelle?” he asks, without really asking a question.

“Professor?!” I put my hand over my heart, in an attempt to calm myself down. Considering how close my relationship to Professor Nickwelter once was it does seem a little strange that that is what I call him. Professor. The truth is, I don’t even think about his first name anymore. Call it an experiment, or maybe I’m just fooling myself, but perhaps I can will myself to forget it. Everyone else around here calls him ‘Professor Nickwelter,’ so why shouldn’t I? Besides, what better way to forget a memory then to start with a name? “You scared me,” I tell him.

“What are you doing here?” he continues, probably already aware that I never call him by his first name anymore. So aware that it doesn’t even bother him.

“I just dropped my book, and now I’m picking it up,” is the best I can come up with.

“Oh. I see.” And that’s the best he can come up with. I think he outdid me.

I take the textbook into my hand and notice him watching me. It’s not so much that he’s watching me, but more like he’s staring blankly in my direction. Almost exactly how I was staring into the void of the screw on the bus four nights ago. I wipe the coffee off of the wet side of my book.

“What are you doing in the back of your car, Professor Nickwelter? Were you sleeping?”

“Hmm?” he asks. I seem to snap him right out of the peculiar state he’s in. “Oh, why yes. Yes, I was.”

I’ve tried my best for the last two years to not give Professor Nickwelter too much of a thought. I mean, that part of my life was over, right? It was temporary at best. The silly crushes and, as much as I loathe the word, affairs have to end eventually. So why do I choose this moment to approach the man who’s given me nothing more than misery, heartache and a birthday dinner? I suspect it’s because these feelings of loneliness, inadequacy and rejection have been piling up since the moment he broke it off with me two years ago. I think it’s the fact that I need to feel safe somewhere. With someone. Maybe anyone. So I ask him, “Do you mind if I sit with you for a moment?”

“You know you don’t need to ask something like that Isabelle,” he replies with a reactionary flick to unlock the door. I get in, but leave the door open behind me.

We sit side by side quite uncomfortably and with words unspoken for some time. It must have been a few minutes, but I can’t be certain. Our eyes glance off one another’s, back and forth. Something desperately needs to be said here in order to break this silence, but I’m sure as sugar not going to budge. I don’t even know what I’m doing in the back seat of this haunted car anyway. It smells funny; not like how this car used to smell, but a new kind of scent. One that doesn’t bring any memories at all to the surface, like smells are renowned for.

“Beth and I had a fight last night,” he starts. “Again. She didn’t kick me out, but it wouldn’t have been long before she did. I always did have to make the first move with her.”

“I’m sorry,” is the most obvious I can do. I’ve always hated how I seem to want to apologize for other people’s mistakes.

“It’s not your fault,” he says calmly.

Of course it wasn’t. But I still feel at least partially guilty. Whether he wants me to feel this way or not, it’s there. “Well, in a way,” I admit, “it kind of is my fault. Don’t you think?”

“Nonsense. Not at all. It’s my fault for being this way.” I’m not sure in what way exactly he’s intimating at, for I know Professor Nickwelter in many ways. He’s kind, yet selfish. Warm, yet isolated. Handsome, yet unattainable.

He stares down at his folded hands. His tired eyes are distant, and seem focused on something that’s been forever out of his reach. His skin is leathery from years of smoking, but those years are now far behind him. In fact I wouldn’t have known that he’d smoked at all if his face hadn’t shown it. But there’s no denying that he is still an attractive man. My mother once told me when I was a little girl that men were most attractive in their forties. Of course I didn’t believe her when I was younger, but I know now that she was right. Even though Professor Nickwelter must be at least fifty. I don’t know for sure because he’s done a remarkable job at dodging my date-of-birth inquiries over the years. I notice his eyes are tearing up. I get the feeling that he really has no idea where his life is going anymore. If indeed he ever had any idea.

“It’s always been my fault Isabelle,” he continues.

But what about me? Do I really have an idea as to where it is I’m heading? I turn my head and look out the open door to my right. I see Jerry Humphries parking his ugly brown car a few of spots over. I close the door quickly so that obnoxious little slime won’t see me. I see him take a large empty birdcage from out of the trunk, and he walks from his car to the faculty entrance.

Just as I turn back to Nickwelter, he wipes some tears from his eyes. I put one hand on his knee and move a little closer to him. Maybe it’s just that I’ve been feeling a little undersexed lately, but I can’t seem to help myself. Desire and emotion can only be bottled up for so long before they simply find the easiest possible release.

If only Templeton had returned from the washroom.

If Claude had simply asked me The Question.

He stops weeping, just long enough for me to timidly inch my words a little closer to his ear. “Do you still love me?” I ask. Even as I’m saying the words, I don’t really know why they’re being said. By the time I realize I’m still in control, it’s too late. The words are already out there. Although a part of me is hoping he might say yes.

“I already sent my signals Isabelle,” he turns and says quietly. “Do you really have to ask me that?”

Yes, he’d sent his signals, just like the Australian Superb Fairy-Wren (Malurus cyaneus). A courting male will pluck a bright yellow flower and show it off against his own cobalt-blue plumage. Nickwelter is also similar to the fairy-wren in that they are socially monogamous, yet sexually promiscuous birds: pairs will bond for a long time, but they will mate with many other individuals during that time.

And if you’re keeping score, the percentage of bird species that are monogamous is ninety. The percentage of mammal species? Three.

“Unfortunately, my marriage is a little shaky right now. I can’t risk losing Beth.”

Now he thinks of his wife? It seems as though those two are always arguing about one thing or another. I pull back a little and ask him, “What are you saying? That if your marriage was going just fine, you’d say yes?”

“Yes. I would.”

“That’s sickening! Here I am, looking for something, for anything! Some twit stood me up the other night, and all I’m feeling right now is that I’ve spent my entire life being rejected! And you’re just worried about yourself, and some fat wife that would never love you another day of your life if she ever found out about your affair! With one of your students, no less!”

“You are talking about yourself, are you not?”

“Of course I am! Why, are you sleeping with another one of these kids?” I know I’m mad at the man, but I’m not sure what’s made me fly off the handle like this. I consider that perhaps it’s all the coffee I’ve consumed over the last few days.

Nickwelter notices too. He knows I’m usually more in control of my emotions. “Isabelle. Bella. We all make silly, stupid mistakes that we regret for the rest of our lives. It’s terribly normal in a depressing sort of way. What went on in this car a minute ago…all I’m asking is for you to try and forget about that, and everything else that’s ever happened between the two of us. Please? Can’t you do that for me?”

I’ve got to give the man at least some credit for almost making it sound easy.

“Believe me, Professor. I will certainly try!” I get out of the car, and slam the door behind me. I hate myself for a moment when I think of the words I just said to this man. A man who, for better or worse, is still a good friend of mine. But how could he say those things to me? I mean, to think that I was still hung up on him. Really? It was only a moment of weakness on my part, wasn’t it? I suppose that’s how it all started back in Cape Cod years ago. And I suppose that’s how things like that always start: in moments of weakness.

I walk angrily towards the ornithology department’s faculty entrance, but I stop when I see Jerry Humphries coming back outside. I freeze for a moment, and wonder if I should head back to Nickwelter’s car to apologize, if only to simply avoid this oncoming weasel. Another moment of weakness. I can’t believe I don’t find myself in more awful situations than I do, seeing how often my mind wants to run back to its familiar comfort zones.

But I don’t turn back. I walk right by Humphries. Sure, he might have smiled perversely and said a greasy good morning. And yes, I might have caught his reflection in the school doors, observing me from behind as we passed one another. I do my best to put both of these men out of my thoughts for now. All I need to do now is hope that I can hide myself away for the rest of the day. Away from Humphries. Away from Nickwelter. And away from those feelings I should never have let loose in the parking lot.

I watch out the window a minute longer as Humphries takes another large cage out from the deep trunk of his car. There must be a shipment of birds coming in this morning. I should have double-checked my calendar.

I toss my textbooks and bag onto the desk in my office. My own office. As much as I enjoyed sharing an office with Mrs. Claus for the last two years, it’s nice to actually have my own space outside of my own home. I call it my nest away from nest. Mrs. Claus is a great woman, but we really don’t have all that much in common, aside from how much she can sometimes remind me of my mother. That being said, the amount that we don’t have in common is far more tolerable than the amount that we do. The most ironic thing about Mrs. Claus was at Christmastime she would have the tendency to overdo it with the office decorations. It was a little too much for me to handle, but I wasn’t about to say anything to her. I mean, she was Mrs. Claus after all.

If Mrs. Claus had been telling this story, it would be much more festive, and it would probably reek of gingerbread and peppermint.

I have just enough time to sit down before there’s a knock on my door. Professor James enters the office, placing a notepad onto my desk. “Your mother called for you last night, Donhelle. She said she tried calling your place, but you weren’t home. Out tearing up the streets at all hours on a Sunday night?”

“Something like that,” I smile at him. Steffen James is maybe the most likable person I know, even with the annoying habit of calling everyone at the university by their last names. Just their last names. Even the students. At five foot three, he stands about an inch taller than me, which I’m sure is a welcome relief for his ego. He has the upward-curving nose of the Pied Avocet (Recurvirostra avosetta), the red cheeks of the European Goldfinch (Carduelis carduelis) and a short-trimmed beard, which has always reminded me of the look of the Short-Toed Eagle (Circaetus gallicus). Men with beards are a big issue for me. My father had a beard when I was growing up, and then decided to just shave it off one day. I barely even recognized him. My own father. I kept looking at him when we were at the dinner table, watching his jaws clench and cheeks expand like I’d never seen them do before. That was probably around the same time that I had started to lose respect for my father. He wasn’t the same man that had raised his little girl. He was someone new to me now, and I couldn’t help but feel uncomfortable.

Professor James once said that he was thinking of shaving his beard off, but I kind of freaked out and begged him not to. That was a year and a half ago, and he hasn’t mentioned it since. I do still imagine what he would look like without it, but all I see is my father, so I usually try and distract myself with something else instead.

I read the note he handed me. All it says is ‘MOM’ in Steffen’s bold, confident printing.

“Quite the detailed note,” I say, as I tear it from the notepad and drop it into my wastepaper basket. “Thanks Steffen.” I figure that I was at The Strangest Feeling last night when my mother tried to call, though I wonder why she didn’t leave a message on my answering machine at home? Maybe it’s time I break down and get myself a cell phone. Why was Professor James at the school answering phones anyway? “What about you then? What were you doing here on a Sunday night?”

Steffen holds up a stack of textbooks and papers under his arm, and exhaustively answers my question. “Just getting my paperwork ready for today’s classes. I’ve got Nickwelter’s Comparative Anatomy class this semester, and it’s kicking my tail feathers.” I can tell the instant he mentioned Professor Nickwelter, he wished that he hadn’t. Steffen James knows all about my history at this school. He taught me when I was a student here, and now he helps me out a great deal with my responsibilities as head of Hawthorne’s ornithology program. He’s seen me at my best and worst, and he knows when something will rattle my nerves. Something as stupid as mentioning a name. He tries his best to change the subject. “Anyway, my C.A. was cancelled on Friday due to the fire, so I’ve got twice as much to cover today in order to stay on track. Hey, did you hear about the swan boats being stolen last night?”

Back it up a little Steffen. We’re not moving on just yet. “I had a talk with him this morning you know? Professor Nickwelter. Outside in the parking lot. Beth kicked him out again, although he won’t admit it.”

“I really don’t think we should be talking about this Donhelle,” was Steffen’s response. “Poor Nickwelter must’ve had another rough weekend.”

“You can’t say that it’s not his fault though, right Steffen?”

Professor James studies my eyes for a moment. He knows that this is the type of subject that could unravel my entire day. He thinks about it, and I can tell he almost says something else, but he resigns to his old trusted standby: “I really don’t think we should be talking about this.” As kind as Professor James is, his only character flaw is that his home life was perfect, and he really doesn’t like to get involved in lives that aren’t as perfect as his. He gets downright awkward about it actually.

If Steffen James had been telling this story, he’d definitely leave out all of the bad parts.

“Genetics is easy,” he starts. “There’s a logical reason and a purpose for everything. Like the Atlantic puffin’s bright orange bill plates that grow in spring for their courtship rituals, and then shed after breeding. Or the spruce grouse’s digestive sacs that increase in size in the winter to support the bird’s seasonal diet of conifer needles. You know all of this too, of course. But relationships are a whole other entity, outside the realm of science. It’s an unanswerable question that requires constant calculations and deductions. It’s the formulae that we know we’ll never deduce, but we also know that we can never stop trying.”

He sits down on the small chair across from me, thinking about the gibberish that he just churned out. After a moment of thought, he comes up with something new to say. Something safe that won’t allow me to dwell on past mistakes. “Hey, did that spaghetti do a number on your stomach this weekend?”

“I’m fine, thank you,” I say as my mind still tries to piece together what Steffen had said.

“I would have given you a ride home, but you flew out of the restaurant like a peregrine falcon!”

Falco peregrinus, I think to myself. “It’s all right Steffen. I took the bus home.”

“That’s good. The last time I rode the bus the driver got lost. We ended up in Brookline Village! Do you believe that?”

“Well, I got home safe and sound. It was pretty uneventful.” I take a stack of papers from my bag, and holding them upright, I tap them onto the desktop so the edges are flush. It’s the illusion of looking busy. I notice Humphries as he walks past my office, another large cage in his hands. He sneaks a peek at me on his way by. There’s a look in his eyes that doesn’t even care if I ignored him on my way in this morning. He’s just being himself. I think that bothers me more than if he actually was upset with me.

Without moving my head, I scan the office with my eyes, taking in the few pieces of my past that are on display. There’s my Hawthorne University ornithology diploma. After six years of studying genetics, statistics, comparative anatomy, physiology, ecology, quantitative analysis, taxonomy and avian science, it was my greatest achievement to finish top of my class. Five years ago seems like a lifetime now.

Next to the diploma is a small hand-made box, given to me by the Dias family, who lived across the hall from me during my first few years in Boston. The ornate wooden box is sealed, and according to South American superstition, bad luck would follow should I ever view its contents.

Above that is a painting given to me by Luis Dias. Luis was only three years old when I first met him, but we grew very close, and when I accepted my current job as head of Hawthorne’s ornithology program two years ago, he had given me this painting as a gift. He said it was a portrait of me and that he had painted it with his bare hands. I accepted it graciously, even though all I could see was just a mess of color, somewhat in the shape of a child’s hand. The Diaz family moved out of the building last year, and now there’s a mean old Romanian man with a glass eye living alone across from me.

There’s a bottle of Brazilian Pinot Noir, given to me by the ornithology staff for my birthday last week.

My shelf that’s bursting with textbooks and field journals.

My Massachusetts teaching certificate.

And Steffen James.

He’s still waiting for me to say something more, since it seems he’s exhausted himself of any more thoughts. We’re all just waiting though, aren’t we? The state bird of Massachusetts is the Black-Capped Chickadee (Poecile atricapillus). I moved to Boston almost twelve years ago, and I’m still waiting to see my first black-capped chickadee.

I take the stack of papers from in front of me, and tap the edges flush once more. Part of me wonders why I’m still trying so hard to look busy, while another part of me wonders why I can’t just move on. “You’re right,” I say to Professor James.

“About what exactly?”

I realize that I’m simply answering my own question. “I do need to move on. This whole ridiculous situation with myself and Professor Nickwelter has gone on long enough, don’t you think?” A little unsure of what kind of answer I’m looking for, Steffen nods cautiously in agreement. “It’s not healthy for me to be in a relationship like that, right? Even if both of us did want it.”

“I really don’t think we should be talking about this, Donhelle.”

I push the stack of papers aside. “And I really do think you’re right Steffen. Thank you again for the phone message.”

With textbooks still under his arm, Steffen rises from his seat and turns to exit my office, but he reaches back for the notepad on my desk before he goes. “I’d better put this back before Humphries realizes I stole his notepad. Have a good day Donhelle.”

Steffen James closes the door behind him, leaving me alone with my thoughts.

I remember the last conversation I had with Professor Nickwelter before our relationship ended. This was two years ago. We were walking through Boston Common, and he told me how this couldn’t go on anymore. I let go of his hand for the last time. His hands always felt horribly cold to me.

I’m not feeling what I think I should be feeling in this relationship Isabelle.” Thinking back on this moment now, I know he and Beth must have been having another fight at the time. “It’s not your fault though,” he continued. “it’s just chemistry.”

Chemistry? I don’t know how I ever swallowed that road apple. “What’s the feeling?” I responded.

Hmm?

You said you’re not feeling something. What’s the feeling supposed to be?

It’s just that; a feeling. It’s not something that can be explained with words, it’s just sort of a sensation more than anything.” I looked up at the Great Elm, and considered the irony that in the eighteenth-century its very branches were used for public hangings. “That’s all I can tell you Isabelle.

We stood gazing at one another for a few minutes more, each of us not knowing what else could be said at this point that would make anything better or worse. The six swan boats in the lagoon bobbed up and down, waiting for someone to say something. After much deliberation, Professor Nickwelter thought of the perfect words: “You can keep the wristwatch I gave you though. It seems to keep good time.

Just go ahead and hang me. Those branches have been begging for this for centuries.

I snap out of my semi-sentimental flashback to find that I’ve scribbled something onto my Avian Structure and Function textbook. I sit back, almost in disbelief of what I’ve written. It’s the question I should’ve asked under the Great Elm two years ago:

Then why the hell did you fuck me?

Embarrassed by my own thoughts, I pull some tape over the words. I gather my books, and leave for my Avian Field Study class. And I try not to think about the watch I had thrown into the Charles River that very same day two years ago.

NEXT CHAPTER

Molt – Chapter Four

Two Months of Kissing Claude

I WAS IN grade ten when I first met Claude. He had transferred to Doneau High in Ville Constance from a smaller high school in a smaller town even farther north. Cindey Fellowes told me that this new kid was eyeing me up in the hall as we came out of biology class one morning. I saw him too, but I pretended not to notice. It seemed so much easier to simply appear interested in class rather than boys, but fourteen-year-old urges have to give way sooner or later.

Claude was a natural beauty. Hidden under long, disheveled dirty brown hair and thick eyebrows were dark brown eyes that seemed to never look any further than my own. In fact, I don’t recall ever seeing him blink; his attention was unyielding. He strode through the halls of Doneau High everyday in the same fur-trimmed brown coat with an assured confidence that never seemed to waver. Even when he’d bump his shoulder into the wall as we sneaked glances at one another.

Our insecure peeking soon became timid smiles, which then turned into the odd “hi” and “hey there” greetings. It seemed a strange coincidence, but each morning when I came to school through those big red double doors, I would see Claude. We would say hello and then proceed with our daily schedules, sometimes without seeing one another for the rest of the day. Those mornings alone quickly became the only reason I went to class each day.

…………

Sunday, October 5. For three straight nights now I’ve imagined that the yellowed glass doors of The Strangest Feeling were actually the big red wooden doors of Doneau High, and that Templeton would be waiting outside for me just as Claude once did. But just like all dreams, this one has now been interrupted by the embarrassment of reality. It’s Sunday night and I’m sitting in the exact same seat I was in last night. And the night before. And the night before that: the night that I met Templeton Rate.

If I hadn’t returned to The Strangest Feeling.

On Friday night, I stuck my face to the cigarette-stained window, hoping to find him in the diner waiting to buy me that cup of coffee he promised. Okay, I guess he didn’t technically promise, but there was something about this man that I seemed to want to desperately cling to. He wasn’t there, but I went in anyway. I ordered a coffee, and waited for him to follow me in again.

Three days and thirteen cups of coffee later, I realize that Templeton Rate probably isn’t going to show. I also realize that I have a caffeine addiction. What made me think that some rude, insincere guy with filthy hands would plan to show up looking for me? Especially when he’d abandoned me with his bill just three nights before. What made me feel as though I even wanted to see this peculiar individual again? What is it about Templeton Rate that made me wonder what it was that I had been waiting twenty-nine years for?

Kitty’s not working tonight, but that’s fine by me because I’m not here to see Kitty. Although I must admit, I do miss her cheery smile a little.

“I don’t think he’s going to show, honey,” I hear from behind the counter. Her nametag says ‘Sylvie,’ and she pours me another cup of coffee. Which brings my running total to fourteen now.

“Excuse me?” I mumble.

“You’re waiting for some guy, aren’t you?” she asks, with her Boston-thick accent. “Kitty told me there’d be a pretty young blonde in here tonight who’d be waiting for some guy that wasn’t going to show. I’m assuming she meant you.”

I barely spoke two sentences to Kitty the previous three nights, but I guess she knew what was really going on. I’m sure she could sense my desperation. Maybe Sylvie can too. “Is it that obvious?” I ask.

Sylvie is a heavy-set woman, probably in her late forties, and looks as though she’s been here most of her life. There’s something about overweight people that makes me want to place my trust in them. She puts the coffee back on the machine behind her, and then leans in towards me, her giant breasts getting some much-needed support. She has a sparkling hairpin that catches my eye as it pokes out of from under her hairnet; it has what appears to be a Painted Stork (Mycteria leucocephala) design on the end of it.

“You French?” she asks, picking up on the same fading accent of mine that Templeton did.

“French-Canadian actually.”

“What the hell are you doing waiting for some loser out here then? You’re a pretty girl. You can definitely do better than this, can’t you?”

“I’m not sure if I can.” I’m not sure if I have the strength to try and do better than this. Simply being here now seemed like a giant step forward for me. “I just needed a change, I think.”

“Listen to me honey. All I’m saying is that I don’t want to see you sitting here in the same seat thirty years from now, waiting for the same guy that’s never going to show.”

“I appreciate that,” I tell her, even though I didn’t really.

…………

I came to school late one Wednesday. My twelve-year-old sister Madeleine, that pernickety princess, was holed up in the bathroom all morning. Thankfully, she was on her way back to the orphanage that day. Although, I think she presumed that she was off to some fantasy world where the other kids actually cared about what she looked like. I could smell the hairspray through the door. I knew I was going to be late, but I still didn’t want to miss seeing Claude that morning.

I banged abrasively on the door. “I need my bathroom Madeleine!”

“It’s still my bathroom too, bitch,” she growled back at me in her usual pleasant demeanor. She had the charming ability to refer to me as ‘bitch’ in just about any situation, claiming that it was actually a term of endearment. I knew better than this of course, but I’ve never been very good at telling someone they’re wrong.

Late as I was, my mother had the nerve to inform me that she simply must get some of her gardening done. Something about new bulbs that needed to be planted, and according to her gardening bible, it was recommended that they be planted midweek before 9:00 AM for the best results. Because of this vital agricultural predicament, I had to walk Madeleine back to the orphanage that morning on my way to school. I tried to explain how important it was that I didn’t miss my first period gym class, but Mom told me she’d write me a note. Of course, a note for Mrs. Wyatt certainly wouldn’t make up for any missed chance encounter with Claude. This boy had a hold over me that I couldn’t resist. Even at fourteen, I wondered if it was healthy to need someone this way.

I put my mother’s note into my pocket, and headed out the door with Madeleine. It started raining after only a block or so, but I had no intention of going back to get an umbrella and being even more late than I already was. We had never really talked to one another in the short time that I’d known her, but Madeleine nonchalantly asked me questions as though we were the best of friends.

“Do you have a boyfriend?”

I told her no.

“Have you ever kissed a boy before?”

Again, I told her no. And unfortunately, it was the embarrassing truth.

The rain was really starting to come down, but it couldn’t put a stop to Madeleine’s relentless one-sided conversation. “I have a boyfriend at the orphanage,” she said. “His name’s Leo, and we’re going to get married.”

Leo? My brother Leo? Is it okay for my non-literal sister to marry my non-literal brother? I felt really sorry for Leo at that moment.

I wanted to ask her if Leo even knew about this pre-arranged matrimony, but decided not to. Instead, I asked her, “But what if Leo gets adopted Madeleine? What if you two never see each other again?”

“It doesn’t matter, because we’re in love. Maybe we’ll leave the orphanage together one day, and go to some deserted island to spend the rest of our lives. That’s how love works.”

My sympathy for everyone but Madeleine seemed to change right then and there. I looked at this twelve-year-old girl all soaking wet from the morning’s sudden storm, and I started to feel incredibly sad for her. I realized then that Madeleine and all those poor kids at the orphanage didn’t know the first thing about how love really worked. I certainly wasn’t the expert on boyfriends and kissing, but I knew I had the love of my family, and that that would never change. My siblings had next to nothing at that moment in their lives that would still be there in fifteen years. They had to keep those make-believe stories going in their heads just to get though the day. It didn’t seem fair to me. Not for Antonia. Not for Leo. Not even for Madeleine.

If Madeleine had been telling this story, she would have dreamed up a much different, much more positive ending.

We arrived at the orphanage, and I walked Madeleine to the front door where Mr. Martin was waiting for her. He said “hello” to me, and I waved back politely.

Madeleine hesitated before walking to the door. She turned her body back to me, without making eye contact. “Well, thanks for the talk.” It was the first time she’d ever thanked me for anything, not that I had done much to deserve such gratitude. Then she ran in through the front door to rejoin the litter of angels inside.

That was the last time I ever saw Madeleine. Some family from New Brunswick adopted her the following week, and I doubt she ever saw Leo again either.

First period gym was almost over by the time I neared the school. I was completely soaked from the rain, which had since passed, but I hoped to at least catch a glimpse of Claude in the halls between classes. Yet, as I approached the big red doors of Doneau High, impossible as it seemed, I saw him. He was at the flagpole, smoking a cigarette and looking a little misplaced. I walked up to him with a courage I never knew I had, trying to dry myself off as best I could. When he saw me coming he dropped his cigarette and instinctively extinguished it under his boot, even though the puddle beneath him had already done the job.

“Hey,” he said to me.

“What are you doing out here?” I asked. It had occurred to me then that this was the first non-greeting I’d ever spoken to him.

“Waiting for you,” he said timidly, avoiding direct eye contact. He leaned up against the flagpole. “You’re late. Have you got a note from your mother?”

I smiled at him, and produced the folded paper from my pocket. He took it from me and briefly examined it before handing it back. “Your name’s Bella, right?”

Isabelle,” I replied, but I didn’t want Claude to think that I was correcting him. “Or Bella.”

“Listen Bella, these stupid days here just seem a lot easier to take when I see you every morning. I like it when you say hi to me. That’s why I wait for you out here every day. I wait until I see you coming, and then I make it seem as though I’m just arriving too. I know it sounds stupid, but I was wondering if you’d like to meet me after school.”

I couldn’t believe this conversation was happening. My heart was fluttering so fast I thought it was going to burst. I couldn’t wait to tell Cindey.

“So what do you say?” he asked.

And all I could manage to respond with was, “You smoke?”

…………

I pull my eyes out from inside the dried-up empty coffee cup. “It’s weird, you know?” I say to Sylvie.

“How’s that?” she asks as she wipes the counter in front of me.

“He told me he wanted to buy me another cup of coffee. Then he went to the bathroom and never came back. He seemed to just disappear. I’m starting to wonder if he was even here at all.”

“Maybe he wasn’t,” she says ominously.

“Excuse me?”

“I mean, maybe he was a spirit. Like a ghost or an angel or something…”

An angel? I remember when I was younger I heard one of my siblings praying through the wall in my bedroom. He was saying things to angels, but I didn’t know what an angel was. So the next morning I asked my father.

Angels are just like you and me and your mother,” he told me. “They’re regular people that just want to help one another out.

Was Templeton Rate even there at all, or was he just one more from the litter of angels?

“…If you believe in those kinds of things, that is,” Sylvie continues. She finishes wiping the countertop and goes back into the kitchen, leaving me alone to think about it.

If Sylvie had been telling this story, she’d probably have a refreshingly different perspective.

“I don’t know,” I say, shouting over the counter and into the kitchen. “He told me he worked part-time as a doorman. If he was an angel, why would he come to see me?”

She comes back out with a fresh pot of coffee. “There must be a reason, honey. Damned if I knew all the secrets of the universe. But angels are supposed to help sort peoples’ lives out, right? Has your life changed at all since then?”

I watch the coffee as it pours into my cup. The color is fantastic and the hot steam rises slowly between us. This brings my total to fifteen. “I’m drinking coffee now. Do you think it’s possible that an angel visited me in order to make me start drinking coffee?”

“We all need a vice, honey.” Sylvie pours a cup for herself now too.

“I don’t know what it is though. He was rude, intolerable and self-centered, but I feel inexplicably drawn to him.” I remember exactly how Claude had once made me feel. “Like he has some strange, undefined hold over me.”

“Wow,” Sylvie seems to say with a little remorse, “I’d love to feel inexplicably drawn to somebody.”

“It’s not as magical as you might think,” I tell her.

…………

Claude and I met that same day after school. I waited for him at the yellow electrical box behind the gym, just as I promised I would. Of course, we really didn’t know each other very well at all. Our two-minute conversation that morning was the only one we’d ever had up until that point, and thinking about it now, it feels like it was the last one we ever had too.

He came stumbling around the corner, not the least bit surprised that I was really there waiting for him. The nervousness that only two teenagers in just such a scenario can feel was shared between us, and we figured that the best way to overcome it was by making out every day after school on that yellow electrical box. A part of me was disgusted by the cigarette taste of his mouth when we kissed, while another part of me just told myself to take what I could get. I still had no idea how all of this had really come to be anyway. It seemed impossible to me then that something like that could ever happen twice in one lifetime. What are the chances?

It was on a Monday, the fourth afternoon behind the gym, when Claude sat still for a moment after parking himself beside me. His hair was cut a little shorter that day. I wondered if his mother still went to the barber’s with him to get his haircut, or if she did it for him herself. I waited for him to move closer, to kiss me, or to say something. Anything. But maybe he was just waiting for the same from me.

“I like your hair,” I told him, but my words seemed to have little effect. He appeared very nervous, as if trying to find the strength to say whatever it was that was on his mind.

“I need to ask you a question Bella,” he said quietly.

“What is it?” I asked, knowing full well that he must want to ask me to go steady with him. I wanted so badly for Claude to be my first boyfriend, and I was sure he felt the same about me being his girlfriend. He’d probably spent all weekend preparing himself for this moment. All he had to do was ask.

“I need to ask you a question,” he nervously reiterated, “…but not now.” He moved in closer to give me a kiss, and I made no effort to hold back. I desperately wanted to hear him ask me what it was I surely had an answer for already, but instead I gave in to those beautiful pouty lips of his.

I guess he could always ask me tomorrow,” I thought to myself with his tongue in my mouth.

“So what was it that he wanted to ask you?” Cindey Fellowes prodded as we made our way through the hordes of students crowding the halls of Doneau High. This was about two weeks into my relationship with Claude, and he still had yet to ask me the question, which had come to be known officially as ‘The Question’ between Cindey and I. “Maybe he had a math problem or something he wanted you to help him with,” she suggested. “I mean…it’s kinda weird that he would bring it up and never actually follow through with asking you, isn’t it?”

It did seem a little weird. Claude and I were still making out behind the gym every day, so I guess I just assumed he felt we were already an item. Forget such technicalities as actually having to ask me. My only problem with the whole arrangement was that we never did anything else. He had never taken me to a movie, or out for dinner like normal boyfriends did in normal relationships. I had never seen where he lived or met his parents, nor had I ever been offered a ride in his car. He hadn’t yet been absorbed into my life outside of grade ten either.

I made the mistake of telling my parents that I met a nice boy at school named Claude, and that I really liked him. I was even dumb enough to tell them about The Question. Dad assumed he was a drug dealer and wanted to sell me something illegal, while Mom guessed that he wanted to sell me something religious. Both of them, of course, wanted to meet Claude as soon as possible, but that just wasn’t conceivable since I couldn’t seem to get him anywhere further than the yellow electrical box behind the gymnasium.

“What do you kids do every day after school, sweetheart?” Mom would ask, trying not to sound as though she was really asking if I knew what a sexually transmitted disease was.

“I don’t know…” I would tell her. “We just hang out. We study at the library sometimes, and other times we study in the cafeteria.”

“That’s a lot of studying…” Dad would say ambiguously in his best non-ambiguous tone. “I never did that much studying when I was your age.”

I wanted to say “and look where it got you, Dad,” but seeing as how my after-school activities could very possibly lead to eventually working at the paper mill myself, I decided that silence was a much better alternative.

“Well, as long as you can keep those grades up sweetheart, there shouldn’t be a problem with you seeing this boy,” Mom concluded reassuringly. Only to throw in the not-so-subtle “but we do want to meet him,” hint.

My parents always tried to find some sneaky way to get the answers for all of their overbearing questions, but they weren’t going to crack my secret code on this one. They may have found out where the missing mixing bowl went when I was seven, or what exactly had happened to the severed gardening hose, or that Cindey Fellowes and I were actually watching the Learning Channel’s History Of Sex unsupervised on her thirteenth birthday, and not The Breakfast Club, but they weren’t going to get anything from me this time.

So they went to him instead.

Two months of kissing Claude had culminated in my parents showing up completely unannounced after school, and at my locker of all places. They were even devious enough to come by on Valentine’s Day, a day when I was sure to be seeing Claude after school. Dad had signed up on the graveyard shift at work that week in preparation for the day’s big event. How perfect. I was at my locker, unsuspectingly showing Cindey Fellowes the hickey I got from Claude the day before, when her attention suddenly turned to someone behind me. I didn’t even notice Cindey sneak away as I rolled up my turtleneck sweater, and turned to see my parents standing there.

“Is that a rash you’ve got there?” Mom asked me. “Because I’ve got some cream in my purse that would clear that right up.”

I couldn’t answer; I was too freaked out at the sight of my parents silhouetted by the Doneau High Valentine’s Dance poster on the bulletin board behind them.

“Your father will go back to the car and get it, sweetheart. It’s no problem.” She moved in to try and get a closer look with her fingers, but I was too angry to let her. I smacked her hand away.

“What are you guys doing here? There’s no parent/teacher conference today, is there?” I don’t even know how they knew where my locker was.

“Your mother and I were in the neighborhood,” Dad started, “and we thought we’d give you a ride home.” How utterly convenient. I looked at my Degrassi High watch; I had to meet Claude in five minutes!

“We practically live in the neighborhood,” I tell him. “I can walk home, you know. It’s not a problem. Not in the least conceivable way at all.”

“We’re not trying to make a problem sweetheart,” she said. “We just…”

And that’s when Claude made his unexpected and oh-so-untimely appearance. He tapped me on the shoulder, as though we had a big game to prepare for. “Five more minutes Bella,” was all he said before stopping to notice that these weren’t teachers I was talking to. My mother, my father and Claude all took a few long seconds to look each other over. Like the Common Kestrel’s (Falco tinnunculus) piercing stare as it circles the vole before swooping down for the inevitable kill. No one wanted to make the first move.

“Mom, Dad…this is my friend Claude,” I said nervously, beating them all to the punch.

They did their best impression of a mature greeting.

“ ‘Allo,” said Dad.

“Hey,” said Claude.

“Well, hi there sweetheart,” said Mom predictably.

The silence continued for what felt like another minute, as uncomfortable glances and uneasy hand gestures were exchanged. From somewhere around the corner, I could hear a locker door close. It seemed like the only sound in the world right then: the creaking hinge, the metal latch connecting back into place and the slow, reverberating footsteps walking away and fading into silence.

I thought I heard the sound of water dripping slowly from a tap in the girls’ washroom: tiny droplets hitting the pool at the bottom of the sink one after the other, in a perfect rhythm of loneliness.

I blinked once or twice nervously, and I could actually hear my wet eyelids as they slapped together.

All of this until Claude bravely spoke up, “So five minutes, okay?” Then he left, walking away from us, yet still keeping an uncertain gaze on my parents for a moment before turning his head away too.

Dad tried his best to take something positive from this painfully impassive assembly. “He seems very…punctual. How are his grades?”

Mom, however, only had vague warnings to deliver. “That boy will break your heart if you’re not careful Isabelle. He’s far too good-looking to take your relationship seriously.” I could tell she was genuinely concerned because she referred to me as ‘Isabelle,’ and not her usual ‘sweetheart.’ Of course, I knew better because I was in love, and isn’t that how it’s supposed to work?

That’s certainly how Madeleine would have perceived it.

Sometimes I felt that I wanted Claude for no other reason than for making out behind the gym. I also just liked the way the word ‘boyfriend’ sounded. My parents left the whole thing alone from that point on, and we never spoke of Claude again.

And then, one day after school on the yellow electrical box, my relationship with Claude ended. We pulled our lips apart for a second, and he said, “It’s my birthday today, you know?”

I had already made sure that we’d established when each other’s birthdays were at the beginning of our relationship in proper teenage girlfriend fashion. “Yeah, I know,” I said to him. I knew that day was his birthday, and I’d made him a card the night before out of flimsy construction paper that had said in haiku:

A birthday itself

Is not so very special,

Not special at all

It can only be

As special as you are then,

As you are to me

I’m not entirely sure what the words I wrote meant, but it had the right number of syllables and I was proud of the effort I had put into it. I slipped the card into his locker first thing in the morning, before Claude even got to school. He didn’t meet me outside at the flagpole anymore.

“So…?” he asked me, as if waiting for something more.

“So what?” was all I could give him.

“So what do you say?”

I thought about this for a moment. What do I say? I wasn’t entirely sure what he wanted to hear from me. So I gave it my best effort. “Um, good for you…?”

“No. That’s not it.”

“Way to go?”

Still nothing.

“What do you want me to say, Claude?”

“You’re supposed to say happy birthday.”

“I made you a card. I slipped it into your locker this morning. Didn’t you get it?”

“Yeah, I got it. But it didn’t say happy birthday on it.”

“Well, happy birthday then.”

“Thank you.”

He leaned back into position to continue where we left off, but I wasn’t going to leave it at that. He seemed so self-righteous listening to me say exactly what he had wanted to hear. “How old are you?” I asked him.

“Sixteen.” he replied, followed by another attempt to make lip contact.

“No. I mean in terms of maturity. That’s a pretty immature thing to say to me Claude.”

“I would say happy birthday to you on your birthday Bella. I can’t believe you’d be so selfish.”

Selfish?”

He got up, turned to me, and said it: “I don’t think I want to see you anymore.”

If Claude had been telling this story, he wouldn’t have put much thought into it.

Then Claude walked away. He dumped me right then and there, behind the gym and on his birthday no less. Maybe the worst thing about it all was the fact that I’d never learned what it was he was going to ask me. Not only had The Question remained unanswered, it had remained unasked.

…………

“Claude was a foolish kid,” I say to Sylvie, “but I’ve heard it said that the jerks are harder to get over than the good ones.” The bottom of my coffee is nothing more than a mound of sugar. “I’m still waiting for the other half of the equation to find out if that’s true, but it certainly has taken me a long time to forget about him. As embarrassing as that sounds.”

She looks at me the way my mother used to look at me right before saying something profound. “The ones that are easily forgotten are the ones that aren’t worth remembering.” I didn’t notice until now, but Sylvie has already locked the door and turned the outside lights off. The Strangest Feeling was closing up for the night. She gives the counter in front of me one final wipe, and motions to the empty cup in my hands. “Did you want to pay for that now honey, or should I put it on your tab for tomorrow?”

I give her a ten for a night’s worth of coffee, and insist that she keep the change. “Actually, I don’t think I’ll be showing up here tomorrow,” I say. I remove my coat from the stool beside me and slip it on. I wrap my scarf around my neck, take my purse and then I thank Sylvie for the company tonight before heading out the door.

“My name’s Maria,” Sylvie replies.

“What? But your nametag…?”

“Is still at home on my kitchen counter. I borrowed Sylvie’s nametag. Besides, what does a name matter anyway when all I’m doing is standing behind a counter?”

I tell her she’s probably right, and I unlock the door to let myself out.

Sylvie disappears back into the kitchen as I leave The Strangest Feeling with the feeling that I would be all right.

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