Molt – Chapter Twenty-One

Broken Heaven

WITH ALL MY strength, I push the heavy door to the rooftop of the Prudential Tower open and step outside. It’s cold up here, and the air seems thinner than it did when I was down on the streets below. I feel a bit disoriented. Dizzy. Light-headed. I assume this is only because I’d just run across the city and up fifty-two floors with a sore tailbone and a broken arm on half a bottle of red wine.

Once I finally catch my breath, I take a look over the rooftop’s edge. If it was quiet back on street level, then here above the city it’s like deep space. The stars seem brighter now without the luminous effluence of the city lights below. The thin mist that had been hanging in the air does not exist up here. Everything is as quiet as death. ‘The calm before the storm’ is the phrase that first comes to mind, but it feels as though the storm might have already happened.

With my eyes, I follow along Exeter Street and Newbury until I spot the rooftop of my own apartment building. I can barely see it through the cloudy vapors below. It appears so small and sad from up here. I wonder if this is what the gulls had seen every morning, and if they had imagined my loneliness before jumping from this exact spot. Before hanging in the air, as if suspended by magic. Before rubbing it in my face, that moment I’d been most jealous of.

I turn my head and look along the cold, icy rooftop to the southeast corner. And that’s when I see the giant fiberglass swan, perched on the corner and overlooking all of downtown Boston. A shadowy figure sits behind it, exactly where the peddler of the Lagoon’s swan boats would have sat. He’s smoking a cigarette, and ignoring my arrival completely.

Hesitantly, I step closer to Templeton. I decided to come up here for a number of reasons, but what sickens me and saddens me the most, is the most selfish of reasons: that I might try and find some closure to our relationship.

If I hadn’t gone to The Strangest Feeling that night, he’d have found me anyway.

Closer still. The ice and snow crunch under every cautious footstep I take. He must know there’s someone here. I don’t know why, but I start to feel a little bit sorry for him at this moment. He looks so lonely up here by himself, with only the moon and his thoughts. He stares out into the misty nothingness of the city below us. After all of the awful things he’s already done, it seems as though he’s regretting something; some decision he had made that he can’t make sense of anymore. The first thing I think of is the night I’d seen him crying at my window. He said he loved me that night. It was the worst lie anyone has ever told me.

If I hadn’t believed him that night, he’d have fooled me eventually.

I move even closer now, still without uttering a word. I want to ask him what’s wrong. I want to ask him what it is he feels at this moment and if there’s something I can do to make things better. But that’s exactly how I’ve treated this man ever since I’ve known him, and that is not the way to deal with a person like Templeton Rate. Besides, I have no idea what he could say to me right now that could possibly satisfy any of my feelings. He still scares me. As much sorrow as he’s brought upon me, and as much tragedy as he’s brought upon everyone else, I still can’t seem to find the words that need to be said. Those laudable words that would make me the hero in my own sad, little world.

I’m standing right next to him now. The freezing air that exhales from inside me intertwines with the smoke from his cigarette. Neither of us can speak. Me, because I’m too scared and still in too much stinging pain; nor him, because he always waits for me to go first. Even when he knows I don’t want to. Especially when he knows I’m too scared to say the first words. He just sits there, sucking that cigarette. Even if there is something on his mind wanting to be set free, he still intends to ignore me completely until I can find the courage to speak first. He holds the once-amphibious change purse in his hand. He rolls it around in his palm. He squeezes it so the front legs kick out from his grip, and then fall limp as he lets go. Again and again.

I recall the first time I’d seen him. We were on the bus. I felt so awkward and uncomfortable, and I’d wished that he would stop staring at me so I could continue my search into the void of the X-shaped screw in front of me. But this sensation I now feel is almost the complete opposite of that moment. As if I might be the one making him anxious. I wish I could remember what it was he said to me that night on the bus that made me so scared of him, because I’d like to say the same words to him now. But I fear that if I should open my mouth at this moment, all I’d be able to ask him is whether or not he still loves me. Just as I had asked Professor Nickwelter in the backseat of his car in one of my most ridiculous moments of utter weakness.

And whether it’s simply to break the silence, or if he’s finally just given up on waiting for me, Templeton speaks; his voice is laced with more than a hint of regret, failure and personal dissatisfaction. He doesn’t turn to me. “All I wanted to do was change the world.” I don’t believe I’ve ever heard him speak this way. He’s never been anything less than the most confident man I’ve known. He nonchalantly tosses the frog in his hand off the rooftop, deep into the misty emptiness below us. “That’s all any of us wants out of life, isn’t it? To change this fucking world?”

“That’s impossible,” I finally say, and I’m surprised to find I’m still a bit out of breath. “Nobody can change the world.”

He stays fixed on what seems to be the tiniest of spots within the city. “You read the journal, didn’t you? By now I’m sure you’re aware of the plans Nelson Hatch had for us. You must know that nothing is too far from the impossible. I mean, how hard would it have been for that chicken to fly for fourteen seconds? We could have done it. But the human race got lazy, didn’t they? It’s always all talk, no action with these people. You did read that journal, right?”

Yes, I read the journal. I saw the winged pigs and frogs. Page by page, they slowly evolved into winged men. I read what Nelson Hatch had written. I read every word and saw every helix of DNA he’d scribbled onto those pages. I saw the blueprints for Claude’s regenerated wing. I saw the white feathery wings under Jerry Humphries’ trench coat right before he knocked me unconscious and locked me away. Before he tried to deny me something I’m sure I wouldn’t have wanted anyway.

Yes, I saw everything I needed to see in that journal. And all of the answers might have been right there in front of me, but still, all I want to know right now is, “Why?”

Why hurt me like you did? Why tell me you loved me, when it’s obvious you didn’t? Why let me believe that I was something special, when it’s clear that I’m not?

“Why? Because this is the way things were meant to be Isabella. Remember what I told you that night in the graveyard?”

“You mean the night you and your mercenaries burned that house down?”

Not surprisingly, he chooses to ignore my question completely. “I told you that to molt is to change,” he says.

Physically or psychologically.

“To change is to evolve,” he says.

Temporarily or permanently.

“It all comes down to evolution.” He takes a long drag of the cigarette. “That’s all I was doing here…” And he blows the smoke out the side of his mouth. “…In a way.”

“But this way…it always has to be your way, doesn’t it?”

Of course, he ignores this question too. At least he turns to face me now. There are tears in his eyes, just like that night at my apartment. The night he said those three horrible words.

“This was everyone’s big chance,” he tells me. “And somehow it all got fucked up.”

I have no idea what he means, because things seem about as bad as they could possibly be right now. What else could he have been trying to prove? What more could he have done to hurt me? As poor as his marks were in my class, I never believed that Templeton Rate could possibly fail at anything.

“I thought I had worked out all of the details,” he continues. “I did all of the tests I needed to do. You saw Jerry Humphries, didn’t you? You saw what I did!” I still don’t speak. Any of the stupid words that want to come out of my mouth are held back by the searing pain that’s returning to my broken arm anyway. Templeton directs his own arm out across the city. “But take a look out there. Where are they all? Do you see any fucking angels?” This is just what Humphries had asked me earlier. Although, where Humphries had been blaming the non-existence of angels on an interruption of faith, Templeton was blaming it on some failure of science.

He gets up from his seat behind the swan. I didn’t notice before, but now I see that this gigantic bird has some sort of electronic device attached to its beak: a metallic cylinder with copper wire wrapped around it, and what appears to be a transformer connected to one end. I also see the familiar box of old, dusty journals sitting inside the hollow swan.

Templeton walks closer to the edge, and takes a look down the side of the tower. “There’s nobody out there!” He flicks the cigarette out of his fingers, and it hovers in the air for moment before blowing fifty-two floors away from us. “I was giving them everything they would’ve needed. But I failed.”

“Who are you to make these decisions anyway? You don’t have the right to make people’s minds up for them, to force your beliefs onto them. You never did.” His back is still turned to me, still looking out over the edge for something that was never there. “This world won’t accept it.”

He whips around, turning to me accusingly. Trying to connect pieces in his head. Forcing pieces that have no right fitting together. “You?” he says, with fire in his dark eyes. “You did it, didn’t you? You threw the wrench into all of this. You fucked it up for everyone!”

“What? Me?” A part of me worries that I already know more than I should, while another part of me thinks this man is giving me far more credit than I deserve. This is another side of Templeton I’ve never seen before; he’s mad at me. And he’s mad altogether; crazed. I’m terrified, and I tighten my arms into myself forgetting how serious the injury to my left arm is. “I didn’t do any of this. This is all your fault!” I try to convince him. “And if I had known how to stop any of this I would have.”

Templeton studies my face for a moment. He studies my words too, as if trying to find some way to tell if I’m being honest or not. “You know more than you give yourself credit for Bella. It’s like you told me before, change is one thing, but evolution dictates another thing entirely.”

“You’ve lost your mind, you know that? This isn’t evolution.”

“Sure it is. Evolution is what separated the continents. It raised the mountains, and wore them back down again. Climates shifted, plant life flourished and habitats disappeared. Species died because they had to die, and then new ones took their places. Life forms evolved to suit their ever-changing environments. But evolution doesn’t have to be something that just happens over time anymore. It’s become something that we can actually control now! Why wouldn’t science be the way to take us to where we’re meant to be? What would the purpose of science be, if not to change us?”

In the university library, Templeton Rate waited until he saw the first changes within me.

“Since the dodo was destroyed, seventy-eight other species of birds have become extinct. And more than half of those were due to mankind’s corrosive ways. Before we know it, we’re going to wipe ourselves out.”

For Halloween, Templeton Rate wanted me to try being something new.

“But just because we like to kill ourselves doesn’t mean we can’t better ourselves at the same time. If one man can enact change through science, then another can just as easily prevent it, correct?” His brown eyes flicker; they’re now accusing me of changing more than I should have. “So what did you do?” he asks me. “Did you tamper with the flux compression generators? Did you sabotage the chemicals I’d injected into the birds? What was it? How did you ruin everything for everyone?”

“I already told you. I didn’t do anything! I’ve just been thrown into this whole mess, without any way of getting out. This is your fault, not mine!”

“It’s not like that at all Bella. You weren’t caught anywhere with your ornithological pants down. You were exactly where you were meant to be. Why do you think I went to all the trouble just to find you in the first place?”

“You mean on the bus that night?”

“No. This goes back much further than your silly birthday party. I’ve known about Hawthorne University’s great Professor Donhelle for quite some time. That’s why I came to the school. You’re the only reason I ever came to Boston. You knew everything I needed to know. I only needed to learn from the best.”

I can’t imagine that this is who Templeton has really been all along. Although the more I think about it, the more it actually makes sense.

“You disappoint me Isabella. I thought you of all people would desire change.”

“But I have changed. Maybe not in the way that you wanted me to. Maybe not in the way you wanted everybody to change, but I can’t deny it anymore. I’m not the same person I was a month ago. Before you came along. I was a completely different person before I met you.”

“Everybody was,” he proudly declares. “That’s the point though; everybody in this world needed a change, but they couldn’t do it, or at least weren’t willing to do it, on their own. They all got lazy, and just rested on their crooked beliefs. Fuck-ups like Nickwelter believed that some sort of redemption could make up for all of the mistakes they’d made in their lives; some miracle to wipe the slate clean. Dipshits like Jerry Humphries all believed that Jesus was coming back, to bring to them whatever it was the world needed; a time of peace on Earth without war or poverty or retards that are dumber than they are. But you know what I say? Let’s just cut out all of this Messianic bullshit crap, and get to the fucking point already. It’s all just talk and no action, right?”

I think about when he told me religion could bring out the strangest ideas, even in seemingly intelligent people. I remember the story he told me about when he was a boy and he met that stranger in church. The stranger that I believed was actually Templeton’s own father. That was the day that Templeton, or Matthew, or whatever his name really was, had decided to form his own beliefs. “So you brought it upon yourself to do something about it? Is that it? You thought that mutating everyone would really solve all of the world’s problems?”

“It couldn’t hurt. Everybody dreams of flying. You told me so yourself when you tried to enlighten me with your own dreams. And you were right; those dreams were the same dreams that Tony had. They were the same dreams that Mitchie dreamed. Zirk and Humphries too.”

Ask anyone what they would want if they possessed the power to have anything at all; ninety percent of those that are telling the truth will tell you they wish they could fly.

“When I had first come to this school to find you, I met another girl. She was a student of yours. I think her name was Summer, but I don’t really remember. Maybe she just looked like a Summer. One night, she told me her dreams; she just blurted them out right then and there. Right when I had her bent over the bed. I never asked her to tell me. And guess what her dream was? She wanted to fly as well. She had tears in her eyes just thinking about the whole thing. She knew deep inside her that this was how we were all supposed to be. So I told her I could give it to her. I made the mistake of telling her everything. She freaked out. I told her that maybe I couldn’t force her to believe in the same things I believed in, but at the very least, I could make her accept it.”

These are same words he said to me in the parking lot. Ironically, that was the day that I had actually stopped believing in him.

“She threatened me. I couldn’t believe it when she said she would actually call the police. We were having a good time up until then. I think it was probably the ecstasy though, now that I think about it. But she never got the chance to make that phone call.”

I think back to the morning I was sitting on the sidewalk outside Templeton’s apartment. I remember the picture of the girl on the telephone pole. Her name was Autumn, not Summer.

“After that, I learned to keep my beliefs to myself. And between you and the journals of Nelson Hatch, I had all of the answers I needed. Because he had the same idea I did. It was Nickwelter himself that had told me stories of those books when he had asked me for a way to help him. And that’s where we are now.”

“The glorious age of Templeton Rate,” I say the words, and I shiver with fright. Templeton is even more dangerous than I thought. How many more Autumns and Becky Chandlers were there?

“If that’s what you want to call it. But I wasn’t doing this for myself.”

He doesn’t notice when I begin to back away from him. He’s too caught up in his delusions.

“I was doing this for everybody.”

I’ve backed right up to the giant swan now. I run my trembling fingers down its icy neck, and into the alcove between its shoulders.

“And I was waiting here for everyone to come up and thank me for what I’d done. But the only person who showed up was you.”

Is it possible that Templeton Rate is really doing good for the world? Are the changes I dream of not as selfish as I first thought? Maybe I was fine, and it was the world that needed to change, just as Templeton has advocated all along? Maybe everybody does want the same thing?

If Templeton Rate had been telling this story, he’d almost make you believe it.

“How was I to know?” he asks, “How was I to know that you were going to ruin everything?” I don’t answer him, but he seems content with not receiving an answer from me anyway. He inches closer.

I reach inside the swan. I feel the thick spine of one of the journals. Did Nelson Hatch truly share the same ideas? Was he just as passionately fanatical as Templeton? Was he just as foolish? Maybe he was simply missing something. One small piece of the puzzle that Templeton found when he found me.

I take the journal into my right hand. My one good hand.

Templeton’s eyes are on fire. I see a hatred inside of him now that can only scratch the surface of what truly courses through his veins. He moves closer with the fullest intention of destroying me. “You ruined everything!!” His fist slams into my face, and there’s the dreadful sound of wet skin against bone. Red blood spurts from my eye and onto the swan’s white back. The pain equals all of the emotional hurt I’ve allowed to pile up inside me for the last twenty-nine years. I clutch the book tighter in my unseen hand.

He jabs me in the neck, and the pain reminds me of the night he left me alone in The Strangest Feeling.

He elbows me in the ribs, and it hurts as much as when I watched him standing there in the parking lot. When I drove away from him for the last time.

He kicks my left arm, and there’s a pain that doubles what I felt when I snapped my ulna and it pierced the skin of my forearm.

He kicks me again. I can’t even tell where his foot lands because it hurts so much. It hurts as much as it did when I first met Templeton Rate.

I’m sitting on the bus again. His hand covers the screw. His bottomless eyes search inside my own. He has plans for me. I want him to turn away and let me go. But I also want him to keep looking, and to realize that all of his ideas are wrong. I want him to get off that bus, so I don’t have to.

I want him to leave me alone.

I want him to forget about me. Forget about Humphries and Nickwelter. Forget about Nelson Hatch and my students and the rest of this world.

I want him to forget about his broken Heaven.

And I want him to go to Hell.

It’s in this precise moment that I remove my arm from the inside of the swan, and I use all of the pain he’s given me. I focus that pain through the journal of Nelson Hatch, and I use it to knock out his front teeth. Templeton stumbles back a little, and I swing the book right into his jaw. I throw it at him, only missing by inches. The journal sails over the edge of the rooftop and hangs in the air for just a moment, before disappearing from sight.

I take another book from inside the bird, and toss it. I throw another. And another. And another, until the sky is full of bird-shaped books, their covers and pages flapping in the wind and descending deep into the city.

“Go to Hell!” I scream at him. There’s only one book left in the box. I take it into my hand and with everything I have left, I throw it. The book doesn’t miss. It hits Templeton hard enough in the mouth that he falls; he falls right over the edge of the rooftop.

I wish I could have seen the look on his face, but all I could see through my bloody tears was the final silhouette of Templeton Rate: the X-shape of his arms and legs spread wide. Just like the void I stared into on the bus.

He hangs in the sky for only a moment before falling fifty-two stories to the courtyard below.

Swallowed by the mists of Lake Avernus.

Through the gateway that leads to Hell.

How poetic I thought, before throwing up one last time.

NEXT CHAPTER

Molt – Chapter Nineteen

Frightmolt

“WHAT ARE YOU doing here Professor?” I ask him.

But the man doesn’t have an immediate answer for me. He sits up on my bed, and wipes the sleep from his eyes. I’m a little bit jealous that he has gotten to sleep in spite of the racket outside.

“You know they’re looking for you, don’t you?”

“They? The police?” he asks, slowly regaining his senses. “Of course they are. God, they…they think I killed that poor girl.”

“I know. I was questioned by some detective last week.” The curtains are already shut, and I make sure they’re just a bit tighter. Outside, I hear police sirens blare. But it’s only a Nightingale (Luscinia megarhynchos) making me feel as though I’ve done something wrong.

“And what did you tell him?” he asks me.

In my heart I know that this man isn’t dangerous, although I can’t help but shiver a little when I think of the last conversation we had. When we were in his office, and he told me that he would do anything to have his old job back. My job. At the time, his words scared me a little; as though it was some kind of threat. But there’s no way Professor Nickwelter could ever be capable of committing the crime the police say he’s guilty of? So I tell him exactly what I told Detective Dunphey: “I told him you couldn’t have possibly done it.” I sit down next to him on my bed, but then I get a feeling that maybe I shouldn’t have. “Wait. You didn’t do it, did you?” I ask, moving a little closer to the end of the bed. My clammy hands clutching the bedpost as tightly as they can.

“Christ, how long have you known me Isabelle? Of course there’s no way I could perpetrate something so awful.”

Outside, I hear a violin. But it’s only a Piping Plover (Charadrius melodus), forcing my pity upon him.

“No, of course not.” I can hardly believe I asked him a question like that. “I’m sorry.”

“I could never do something that horrible,” he reiterates.

I try my best to change the subject, but changing subjects has never been one of my strong suits. “I always had a feeling you were fooling around with more of your students. I knew I could never be more to you than just a way to kill some free time.” I know I shouldn’t have uttered the word kill, but I suppose it was the most appropriate word. Nickwelter doesn’t seem to have noticed though; he continues to sit on my bed with his face in his hands.

“How long have you been here?” I ask him. “And how did you get in?”

“There’s a pipe outside. I just shimmied up, and grabbed on to your fire escape. You really should get a better security system back there, you know?”

Tell me about it.

“I don’t know how long I’ve been here though,” he continues. “Two days maybe? Three? I can’t seem to keep track of my time very well anymore.” His focus is fading. This man seems totally consumed by something right now. Something big enough, something important enough that even such mundane details as calendar dates are now completely insignificant to him.

“You probably shouldn’t tell the police that, should they ever ask you.” I can’t help it, but tears begin to well up in my eyes. I wipe my cheek with the palm of my hand. “How did all of this happen, Professor? How did everything go so wrong, so fast? We were all out for dinner a month ago, and I was sitting there agonizing about why my life had seemed so boringly stagnant. But now? That one night out seems like a lifetime ago. Everything has changed since then.”

Outside, I hear a bell chiming ominously. But it’s only a Moluccan Cockatoo (Cacatua moluccensis), making me wonder how I could’ve wrecked my life so badly in just one month.

“I’ll tell you what happened,” he says quietly, turning back towards me now. “It was Templeton Rate that changed everything.”

It really is that obvious, isn’t it?

If only I hadn’t left the restaurant on my own that night.

I confess to him, “That was the night I first met him, you know? It was on my birthday.”

“I know Bella. He followed you from Café d’Averno onto the bus.”

I never told anyone what had happened that night. The night I’d finally decided to change. The night that my own molt had begun. “How do you know that?”

“He told me so himself.”

“You spoke with Templeton? When?”

“A couple of times. But listen to me Isabelle; you need to stop all of this. Stop interfering and just leave it alone.”

Interfering? Interfering with what?” Suddenly from outside, I hear the deafening crash of a train derailment. There’s the unmistakable sound of shattering glass and twisting metal that can’t possibly be more than a block away. But I’m pretty sure it’s only more lyrebirds driving me ever closer to my breaking point. I have to speak up over the reverberation off the alley walls. “Do you have any idea what’s going on in this city right now?” I ask, even though it’s more than obvious.

“Of course I do,” he tells me. “How could anyone ignore all of this madness?”

“Well, you seemed to be sleeping fairly well five minutes ago.”

“I suppose I just got used to it all. I imagine everyone will eventually.”

We sit on my bed together, probably another minute without any words between us. Nickwelter seems to know something more about what’s going on here. I want to ask him about Templeton. I want some kind of explanation for all of this. I want him to tell me the truth. But I worry that all I’ll hear him say is that he still loves me. I think there just might be a limit to the amount of truths I can handle at this point.

“Listen to me Isabelle,” he begins. “I discovered some things about Templeton Rate that I wasn’t supposed to. Okay, I admit that I disliked him from the start; I was jealous of your relationship with him. I wanted to find his secrets, whatever I thought they might have been at the time, in order to make you hate him as much as I did.”

“Professor…I’m so tired. I don’t think – ”

“No. You need to listen to me. I found out the truth about him Isabelle. And it was the truth that killed that poor girl.”

I try to speak again, “I don’t know if I can – ” I’m not even certain what it is that I’m trying to tell him, but I only get so far anyway.

“Isabelle, he was never enrolled at the university. That’s why nobody at Hawthorne knew who he was. That’s why he seemed to just appear out of nowhere.”

If I hadn’t agreed to go to Salem on Halloween with him.

“He doesn’t work as a doorman. There’s no hotel in Boston that’s ever heard of him!”

If I hadn’t woken up in his apartment that morning.

“And he wasn’t born in Schenectady. All those things you’d told me about him aren’t even true. He’s lied to you and everyone else.”

If I hadn’t waited for him in the library.

“Isabelle, he’s not who he claims to be.”

“What are you saying?”

“There is no Templeton Rate. There never was.”

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

“I know it sounds made up,” Templeton had told me that first night. “But that’s really my name.”

If I hadn’t gone into The Strangest Feeling.

“Then who is he? I know I’m not imagining things. I may feel like it, but I know I haven’t lost my mind.”

“I don’t know who he is. But the day after I asked him that very question was the day that Becky Chandler was killed.”

“Are you serious? I’ve been dating a murderer, is that what you’re telling me? Professor, how am I supposed to believe any of this? This is crazy!”

“I know it sounds extreme, but I’m only telling you this because I’m worried about you Bella. Because I don’t want to see you get hurt. Is that so bad?” I can feel the words coming that I know I don’t want to hear. I can sense them on the tip of his tongue and within his quivering hands. “Is it really so horrible to still be in love with you Isabelle?” And there they are.

If only I’d ended this conversation two minutes ago; if I’d never kissed him that first time in Cape Cod, none of these feelings would even exist. And we could be sitting here now trying to help each other, rather than feeling awkward about the whole mess.

If I hadn’t been rejected from the high school basketball team.

“Don’t do this Professor. I can’t go through this again.”

He sniffs at the air, smelling the smoke that still lingers in my apartment. “What’s that smell?” The thought of another cigarette may just be the only thing that keeps me from saying something much too awful to him right now. I cough a little just imagining it. “Were you smoking Bella?”

“I guess I’ve got habits just as bad as yours now Professor.”

“Christ,” he says, with a beleaguered look in his eye. “I feel like I know everything there is to know about you Bella, and then sometimes I feel like you’re someone else entirely.”

I remove the lighter from my pocket. Reaching across him, I take a cigarette from my bedside table. Like a Blue Jay (Cyanocitta cristata) will bury its acorns in the ground many months in advance, I suppose I’ve been hiding these all over my apartment. I don’t know what else to say to him, so I share the nightmare I was having only a few minutes ago. “I was having a dream just now.” I light up the cigarette, and take a puff. “The whole world had changed without me: everybody was everything I ever wanted to be. But I was still just me, and I was all alone.” I cough again, and the smoke mocks me, as it seems to take a bird-like form. “But I have changed. And I’ve always needed to change, but now that it’s actually happened, it scares me more than any nightmare ever could. I have no idea what this thing is that I’ve become.”

There’s a silence between us that is at once comforting but also completely uncertain. I know Nickwelter well enough to know that he’s stumbling to find the right words to say to me. He opens the drawer and removes a cigarette for himself. I pass him the lighter; the lighter only Claude and I had shared until now.

“It does feel good,” he says to me, tasting the cigarette in his mouth, “reverting back to something we once were.”

The two of us sit on my bed, blowing smoke in lonely unison.

“I want to show you something,” I say to him, slowly peeling myself off the bed and walking into the living room. I return to the bedroom with the journal in my hand. Passing it to him, I say that according to Templeton, the book is supposed to contain all the answers I would need. But I have my suspicions that nothing could ever be so absolute.

Paging slowly through the journal however, it seems as though Nickwelter may already be familiar with some of its contents. He turns to me, and through the translucency of the smoke, I see bewilderment in his eyes. “This book belonged to Nelson Hatch, didn’t it? Where did you find this?”

“Templeton gave it to me,” I tell him. “Well, actually it’s more like I stole it. I think he found it inside Hatch’s house in Salem before burning it to the ground.”

He extinguishes his cigarette into the wood of my bedside table, and flips fervently through more of the journal. He stops when he comes to the very same drawing I had stopped at. The pig with the eagle’s wings.

And then he speaks, although mostly to himself it seems, as I have no idea what he’s talking about. “ ‘As Gregor Samsa woke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself in his bed, transformed into a monstrous insect.’ ”

“What’s that?”

“It’s from The Metamorphosis. Kafka. I thought it seemed appropriate. But maybe I was wrong.”

He usually is. I hear Claude in my living room, rattling his beak across the cage bars. “Templeton fixed Claude’s wing,” I say to him. “Did you know that? The wing that you amputated years ago has grown back.”

Nickwelter turns away from the journal, looking at me exclusively now. “What? But then that would mean…”

It means this is the glorious age of Templeton Rate.

“It’s a miracle.” I tell him. “It means that Templeton’s a genius. And he’s capable of more than that.”

“Yes. It’s all in here,” he says, redirecting his attention back to the book in his lap, and flipping through more of the pages. “I’ve heard stories before about the journals of Nelson Hatch. Since before your time, professors at Hawthorne University have been discussing them in secrecy, and contemplating what his science might’ve meant for the world.” He turns to one of the last pages in the old, dusty journal, and his jaw drops at whatever it is that he sees. I only catch a glimpse of it before he closes the book for good.

Maybe I’m not understanding the impact of everything. Maybe there’s still some small detail I’m overlooking. It probably would be completely over my head anyway. “It’s like I’m standing in the middle of a place I’ve never been before,” I tell him, this man I used to love. I’m doing the best I can to try and explain these thoughts and feelings that are flying through my head at four hundred miles-an-hour. “How do I just go back to where I was before all of this madness began?”

But of course he doesn’t understand my feelings. “Do you mean with me?” He never understood the feelings of Isabelle Donhelle.

“Not with you. We’ve tried that before and that didn’t work either.”

He turns back to the closed journal in his lap, rejected again. “I suppose I’ve never really understood what you wanted Isabelle.”

I ignore him completely, and continue along the path my thoughts were taking me. “What I mean is, in an effort to make the right choices for myself, have I made one too many mistakes?” I hate Templeton Rate. A part of me wants nothing more than to slap him across the face for lying to me all this time, and yet another part of me still wants to defend him from my own selfish thoughts. To preserve his genius. Even after all of this. Because maybe this part of me still loves him too.

Claude’s rattling becomes more furious, but I know he’s just excited to be back home. This is his way of readjusting to familiar territory.

“Isabelle, Templeton is dangerous. But as much as I despise the man, this is all much bigger than him. I didn’t know it before now, but there’s so much more at stake here than your bird’s wing or Hawthorne University. It’s so much more than that racket outside. Or even my being here right now.”

“What’s all of that supposed to mean?”

“My point is that…well, we all make mistakes in our lives. And usually there’s never anything you can do to fix all the mistakes that you’ve made along the way. But if you have that chance, you take it. I should have left Beth when the decision was an obvious one, but now it’s so much more complicated. I didn’t understand all of it myself at the time, but now I know what Templeton Rate is capable of.”

I know Templeton much better than he does, at least I think I do anyway, but even I don’t know everything he’s capable of.

It looks like maybe the flamingo has gotten the better of me.

“It was Nelson Hatch,” he says, shaking the book with one hand, indicating that the truth really was within those pages after all. “He was the key to all of this.”

I reach out, and take the journal from his hand. I flip through the pages again, looking for answers within text that seems to contain nothing more than questions.

Page by page, new images unfold before me. I read some of what I’d only skimmed through before now. And I only need to see the one diagram on the last page before I really do know the truth. Before I truly realize that this molt may not be finished quite yet.

If Nelson Hatch’s journal had been telling this story, it would be giving away the ending.

It seems impossible. Like fourteen seconds for a chicken.

Outside, I hear a woman screaming. But it’s only a rooster, beating me to the punch. From my living room, Claude’s beak continues to rattle along the metal bars. But the rattling echo becomes deeper, louder. It’s not Claude doing all of the work anymore. I stand up now, and I grip the book in my hands a little bit tighter. The first thing that comes to my mind is the fire escape outside my window. The same way Templeton came into my apartment. The way Nickwelter came inside. The way Jerry Humphries probably got in too. The sweat on my palm makes the book feel slippery. I want to peek around the corner, but I don’t know if I have anything left in me to endure being scared anymore. I tell myself that it could just as easily be another superb lyrebird making the racket instead.

It doesn’t seem as though Nickwelter is hearing the clatter outside; he’s far too engrossed in the discoveries he’s made. “Isabelle, Nelson Hatch was on to something unimaginable, and it looks as though Templeton knew about it. Maybe he is a genius.”

“Professor?” I ask, without really asking a question.

He doesn’t hear me. He doesn’t sense my concern. But he does say possibly the only thing that could scare me even more at this moment. “Templeton Rate could very well save us all!”

I don’t even let the words sink into my head before I interrupt his thoughts for good. “Professor! I think someone is here.”

“What? Where?”

“I think somebody is coming up the fire escape.” The rattling continues for a bit, and then stops suddenly with a loud metal clank. Like somebody has landed heavily on the balcony outside my window.

“We’ve got to get out of here Bella!”

It’s quiet now. If I clenched this book any tighter, surely it would break apart in the vice-like grip of my sweaty hand.

Peering around the corner and into my living room, I see them. Two shadowy black silhouettes outside on my fire escape, gazing back at me. I want to take Claude from his cage, but there’s not enough time. Something tells me that it’s not Templeton, but whoever these men are, and for whatever reason they’re here exactly, all I know is that I need to get out of my apartment before I become the next Becky Chandler.

Nickwelter is already at my front door, urging me to follow him. “I have to get Claude,” I yell at him.

“There’s no time for that Isabelle,” he says. “We need to leave. Now!”

One of the men outside taps on the window with something hard and heavy. I get a chill when I see the metallic glint of a gun in his hand. But I don’t want to leave my bird behind. Hasn’t he gone through enough already? “I’ll come back for you Claude,” I say, and I hope he believes me. But birds don’t know promises, and they’ll never hold you to them.

I turn back to Nickwelter, standing in the open doorway, and there must be some kind of look in my eyes that’s powerful enough to make him change his mind. He runs across the living room, towards the birdcage. I think it’s maybe because he really does love me. And who knows, maybe he always had but I couldn’t see it until now?

One of the men says something, but I can’t make out the muffled words through the glass.

They try to slide the window open, but it won’t budge, probably due to the icy cold. They don’t waste another second before kicking it in. I hear the breaking glass, but I’m already running out the door.

Nickwelter tells me to keep running. I don’t even look back at him, and I hate myself for it. With the journal and a cigarette still in my hands, I run out into the hallway in my socks. I’m already down the first flight of stairs when I hear a gunshot. It’s definitely not coming from the lyrebird. And then I hear another one, and what sounds like a body hitting the floor of my living room. I can’t imagine any bird could replicate such a particular combination of sounds.

Once in the lobby, I figure I can either exit through the front onto Newbury Street, or I can head out the back door and into the alley where my car is parked. I consider for a moment that should get into my car and leave everything behind. I could forget about all of this and drive back up north to Ville Constance. I could get a job at the Blackbird’s Grill. I’m sure Cindey would recommend me, even if I haven’t had a baby. But the best idea I have is to drive directly to the police station; surely there would be someone there that can help me. Someone that might help this entire city. I can’t do this on my own anymore, I think to myself. And I realize that I’ve changed even more than I’d thought; I used to be able to, and insisted upon, dealing with any problems I had on my own. But apparently I’ve molted into something much weaker. This new me simply isn’t strong enough. Maybe I should tell Detective Dunphey about the missing swan boats I saw in the university lab too.

I hear footsteps coming down the stairs, indicating I definitely don’t have the time to be standing here any longer. I throw the back door open with such vigor, that the colony of ring-billed gulls that had been loitering in the alley all morning fly off all at once, but still without making a sound. The wall of wings and feathers that springs forth before me is enough to stop me in my tracks.

And when my vision clears, I see someone sitting on the hood of my car. It’s Zirk. He’s still wearing that dirty black housecoat, and he’s carving something into my car with a knife. He doesn’t even turn when he speaks to me; he remains focused on whatever it is he’s doing.

“Hello gorgeous,” he says, his vocal chords still rumbling peculiarly.

Before I can respond, the two men that broke my window and most assuredly shot Professor Nickwelter arrive. I don’t turn around, but I can feel the gun behind me. I’m trapped; they’ve got me cornered. I curse to myself, realizing that I didn’t have my car keys with me anyway, and that I could have just run out onto Newbury Street when I had the chance ten seconds ago. I think I called myself a ‘goober,’ but it could have just been some other charmingly derogative nickname.

“There’s nowhere left to run, Professor,” Zirk continues. “I think you’d better come with us.” He pockets his knife and jumps off the hood of my car into the snow. He lands awkwardly, and stumbles forward a bit, as though his legs were shorter than he’s used to.

The flannel sleep pants I’m wearing have large pockets, big enough for me to slide the journal into. I think I’m being incredibly sneaky, but I’m sure that these guys simply don’t care what I’m doing with it. “What are you doing here?” I ask them all simultaneously, hoping that between the three of them they can come up with an answer that will satisfy me. “And where’s Templeton?” I try my best to not let my emotions get the better of me. I could easily just give up with the thought that Nickwelter is probably bleeding on my carpet right now.

“There’s that question again,” Zirk comments. “Is Templeton Rate really the only thing you care about? Because it sure seems like it to me.” I notice that the word ‘PUFFIN’ has been carved on my hood, right next to the last one. And this time it’s much larger, and much rougher. Messy, like how a five-year old might try and spell.

Puffin?” I ask out loud, but really just to myself.

“That’s me,” he boasts proudly. “Everyone needs a nickname.” He scratches at himself through the housecoat, trying to track down an itch somewhere under there. Motioning to the men behind me, Zirk asks “Have you met Rob and Bob yet?”

I turn around and get a good look at these two. These were the same two kids I saw in the south laboratory earlier this morning; the two that claimed to be Harvard students. Bob is holding the gun. I guess handguns don’t seem like such a big deal until you’re in your pajamas and being chased into an alley, because I’m completely frozen in fear at the sight of the gleaming weapon. Bob’s the tubby one I spoke to earlier, and I notice now he’s wearing a t-shirt that simply says ‘Virginia’ across the front. I thought there was something strange about the shape of his head before, and now I can tell that it seems disproportionately small in comparison to the rest of his body.

Rob is much more lively than his motionless friend, and his movements are erratic; twitching, shifting his weight from one foot to the other and darting his head back and forth like a bird.

“What’s going on here? What do you want from me?”

“Templeton wants to see you,” Zirk tells me. He’s still got the same bandage over the bridge of his nose, but the crusty, bruised infection I’d noticed earlier seems worse than it was before. Perhaps it’s just an incredibly bizarre coincidence, but it reminds me a little of the colorful orange, yellow and blue plates of an Atlantic Puffin (Fratercula arctica). As does the rumbling under his breath after every sentence. He scratches himself some more underneath his black housecoat.

I take a look up at my broken window, and I’m relieved to see that Claude is unharmed, and watching us all from his cage. Now that I think of it though, I think the earlier gunshots must have scared off all of the other birds in the area. The alley seems emptier, and quieter, than it’s been all morning.

“I think I’m fine without him,” I finally respond. Motioning towards my car, I hope they might have the courtesy to let me go. Maybe these guys have what it takes to respect a girl’s decision. And I’m praying they have absolutely no idea just how scared I am right now.

But Zirk grabs my arm, preventing me from going anywhere. His grip feels tight, even through my heavy sweatshirt. I struggle to break free, but his hand tightens even more. I plead for him to let go. “Come on now Professor,” he says to me, his fishy breath making me sick to my stomach. “There’s no point in struggling anymore.”

“Hey Puffin,” one of the guys behind me says. “You ever seen a movie where the prisoner begs for freedom, and they actually let her go?”

Zirk doesn’t have an answer for him, he remains as calm as can be. I want to scream, but instead, I defy my captor by wriggling my arm out of the sleeve of my sweatshirt. From my peripheral, I notice Bob and Rob moving closer. So I give it everything I’ve got. In my free hand, I’m still holding onto my smoking cigarette. I flick it into Zirk’s face; it sizzles a little on the bandage between his eyes before bouncing off the bridge of his nose and into the snow. Twisting away from him, and using the free arm underneath my shirt, I pull the sweater over my head and slide my other arm out of the sleeve. Zirk falls back: the bold, proud, yellow Hawthorne University font covering his face.

I don’t even know how I do it, but I kick backwards and hit Bob, knocking him backwards into Rob and against the side of my car. The handgun hits the ground, and spins on the icy cement. I pick it up and head west down Public Alley 434. I hear the familiar “Bye-bye Bella” calling out behind me as I leave Claude again, and I try my best to ignore it.

As I near Exeter Street, and just as I’m feeling as though I’ll get out of this mess once and for all, Jonah Mitcherson appears, hobbling into the middle of the alley on his crutches. He still has shorts on too, but he’s now wearing a knit cap to at least keep his head warm.

“What do you guys want from me?” I ask him, hoping for a different answer than I received from the other three.

Of course I don’t get one. “It’s not us, Professor Donhelle. It’s him.” He licks his lips with his large tongue. It appears abnormally thick and oily, frighteningly similar to that of a flamingo. “Templeton Rate just wants everyone to be happy.”

As selfish as Templeton’s always been, I find this more than a little hard to swallow. I point the gun towards Jonah, but I know I wouldn’t have the guts to actually use it. “I’m going to the police. And you can tell Templeton that they won’t be happy.”

I hear footsteps in the snow behind me, and I know that the three men I’ve already eluded are fast approaching. Maybe it’s the adrenaline pumping through me. Maybe it’s the realization that I’ve finally run out of options tonight. Or maybe it’s the fact that I’m not the same person I was a month ago, but something inside me makes me kick this man’s crutch out from under him. Mitchie Mitcherson falls face-first into the snow, and I turn the gun back towards the other three.

I order them to let me walk away from this, and they all step back at my command. It feels good to have this kind of power, although I know I don’t have any idea how to work this cold metal thing in my quivering hands. But it doesn’t matter. With fuzzy penguin socks in flight, I run out onto Exeter Street. I sprint by a deceit of Blacksmith Lapwings (Vanellus armatus), sounding something like popcorn popping. I pass an unkindness of Ravens (Corvus corax), sounding remarkably like television static. I’m not paying attention to the street signs, but I must have run four city blocks already. The morning sunrise not only beams off of the glass veneer of the Hancock Tower to my left and the Prudential Tower to my right, but also off the cold metal gun in my hand. I think I hear birds chirping. Actual chirping. Not making noises like electrical generators or screeching tires, but actual peeping, cheeping, tweeting and twittering. It’s extraordinary.

Then in my most glorious moment, I slip on some black ice, and I slide right into an oncoming car. My body soars across the street. I barely even have enough time to register the irony of how much I’ve yearned to fly over the years. I hit the curb, and bounce into a snow bank. My head thumps hard on the bottom step of a brownstone’s brick staircase.

My body hurts. I’m frozen still on my back and staring straight up into the sky. I hear the car door creak open, and I raise my head just high enough to see Humphries walking towards me. Jerry Humphries, in his old weather-beaten trench coat. My head drops back down, cushioned a little by the fresh snow. I taste blood. My left arm is in an astonishing amount of pain.

He picks up the handgun I dropped, and then crouches down beside me, leaning in close. “Funny running into you here,” he says. I’d almost like to give him credit, as this is probably the wittiest thing I’ve ever heard Humphries say, but I really cannot justify it at this moment. God, my back hurts, but I think I’m more bothered by the smell of this man’s breath.

I can’t move. I can’t speak. My body is in shock. I can only dart my eyes back and forth between Humphries’ ugly visage and the sky above us. The clouds have darkened already, and have taken on a new, somewhat bruised colorization.

Without the benefit of anyone interrupting him, Humphries continues. “Look at you Bella; lying there all helpless. Like a poor little bird with clipped wings.” His eyes scuttle across my body, making me feel even more defenseless. “You know I’ve always imagined you this vulnerable. What I would do with you! What I would do…and what you might do for me.” He leans in closer, studying my lips as close as he can. He takes his finger, his wretched, hairy little chewed-up finger, and touches my bottom lip, then wipes the blood from the corner of my mouth. “Can you stand?” he asks me.

I try to, but I can’t.

He asks, “Can you lift your head?”

Again I try, even though success would mean bringing my face that much closer to this despicable man that I’ve spent the last eight years or so trying to avoid. But I can’t move my neck either. I can hear his ugly car still running. I can smell the exhaust polluting the air and my nostrils.

“No? Is that it then? Is this all the fight you’ve got to give?” He seems upset, as though expecting so much more from me. “Surely you’ve got more of a fire inside you than this?” He stands up, puts his hands on his hips and looks around; he looks around as if trying to figure out what to do next. “So all you can do is just stare up to the heavens? Is that it?” I don’t know if he’s really looking for an answer from me, or if he’s simply content with having this conversation by himself. “Well, there’s nothing up there for you Bella. There’s nothing up there that’s any good for any of us down here. I don’t know if there ever was.”

I don’t want to try and make sense of his ramblings, even if I possibly could. But he’s not overly concerned about receiving a response anyway. He looks at the handgun, nesting within his filthy grip. “Maybe I should just end it all for you right now then? Would you like that Bella?” I give him no answer, although I almost wish I could say ‘yes’ at this point. Next, he points the gun directly at me. “Do you want to share the same fate as Nickwelter? Or that girl? Do you want me to do the same for you as I did for her?”

I try to get the words out of my mouth. “You…?” And due to the numbness and pain, it’s only now that I realize my mouth has been full of icy snow. “You…k-killed Becky?”

“Well, we wouldn’t want Templeton to get his hands dirty, would we? I mean, dirtier than they usually are, that is. Have you ever noticed how mucky his hands are? And you just let him do whatever he wanted with them, didn’t you? You let him put those hands wherever the hell he wanted to.” I’ve never heard Jerry Humphries go on like this before. There’s an inferno inside him that’s fueling his emotions; consuming him. “I do all of his dirty work for him. I have been for months now.”

I never would have believed Humphries’ connection to Templeton ran as deep as it apparently does. I knew there was something strange about their relationship, but this? To have the audacity to actually commit a murder? The feeling is returning to my mouth, and I almost wish it wasn’t, since the pain is unbearable. “But what’s in it for you, Jerry? Why have you done these things for him?”

“He’s a brilliant man, Templeton Rate. He was smart enough to figure out how to have you Bella. I’ve been trying for years, if you haven’t noticed.” There’s jealousy in his green eyes; nothing I haven’t sensed before from the man. But now there’s an underlying calmness about Jerry Humphries. Some kind of acceptance for whatever has already been done. Or possibly for what’s still yet to come.

“But what’s he going to do for you Jerry?”

“He’s already done everything. And he’s letting me be a part of it all.”

“All of what?”

“Things are about to change around here Bella. All of the misery and sadness. The depression, hopelessness, desolation and all of the shittiest, most fucked-up, unfair feelings that everyone has to go through in this life; they’re all coming to an end.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Some call it Armageddon. Some call it the Apocalypse. But no matter who you are, you believe that the end of the world is always signaled by the arrival of angels.” Humphries looks at me. His eyes are urging me to agree with him, to acknowledge what he’s saying as fact, even though I now realize he’s utterly mad. “Look around you!” he screams, his arms spread wide. “Do you see any angels here? Obviously the end of the world has already come, or else things wouldn’t be as fucked as they are. But there was no warning. There was no messenger from Heaven.”

I still can’t move. If I could, I’d physically try to knock some sense into this man. Instead, I try my best to do it verbally. “Maybe that’s because it hasn’t happened yet,” I suggest. “Or better yet, maybe all of that religious mumbo jumbo is just made up? Wouldn’t that actually make more sense?”

“That’s bullshit. The truth is that obviously no angel is ever going to want to come back to all of this. Would you want to? Would you come back here if you had it so fucking good up there?” Humphries has always been a religious man, I know because of all of the times I’ve rejected his invitations to go to church with him. But this is bordering on psychotic behavior. Much more than a Jesus fish could ever hint at.

“So humanity is doomed then?” I ask him, wondering what it will take to make him stop. “You’re saying that we should just give up since there won’t be anyone to save us anyway?”

“Haven’t you been paying attention? Of course someone will save us.” I can tell from his eyes that this man really has lost his mind. “Someone is already saving us, and his name is Templeton Rate.”

It’s just as Templeton once told me: “I can’t believe how religion can bring out the most idiotic ideas in people.

Is this really what Templeton wished for? Is this really what he believed?

The words still ring in my head; something else he said to me in the university parking lot, the day I broke up with him. “Everyone will believe in something different,” he told me. “And if you’re lucky enough, some of them will even believe anything that you tell them.”

Is Humphries just believing whatever Templeton had told him? Or is this really the end of the world? Above me, I notice that a Black-Capped Chickadee (Poecile atricapillus) is trapped inside the brownstone. It tries to fly out through the closed window, repeatedly hitting his beak against the glass in fits of fury. In some American superstitions, if a bird flew into your house, it was the bearer of important news, but if it couldn’t get out again, some believed it was a sign of death.

I spot a Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens) pecking at the wooden door at the top of the steps. In Alaska, it’s believed that if a woodpecker tapped on your door, it brought bad news, possibly even the death of someone in the family.

I’ve also heard that the call of a Whip-poor-will (Caprimulgus vociferus) or the hoot of the Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus) was sometimes a sign of death or bad luck. Beyond the already all-too familiar sounds of train whistles, machine guns and wood chippers, I can hear them both; a whip-poor-will to the east and a hoot to the south.

Jerry Humphries moves towards me again, reaching his hand out to grab me. But I find the strength to resist. My body hurts so much, but I won’t have this man lay another finger on me. I pull my legs in, and kick out with both of them. My feet connect with his rib cage, and he falls back.

I kick him further than I expected I might, as though he weighs far less than he should. He lands with such weightlessness in fact, that it actually seems to aid him in quickly getting back on his feet. Immediately, he turns his attention back towards me. “A change is coming Bella. There’s nothing you can do to stop it.” He’s right in my face again already; his speed is hard to believe. “And everyone, except you, is going to have Templeton to thank for it.”

“Why not me? Don’t I get a choice in all of this?”

“Maybe you did, but I’m taking that choice away from you. Because you don’t deserve it. You don’t deserve any of it, you ungrateful bitch.”

The wind catches his coat, blowing it away from his body momentarily. And I think I understand him now. I don’t believe what I’m seeing, but I think I am accepting it; I’m certain that I see a pair of white feathery wings underneath his coat.

And that’s right about when he pulls the gun back and strikes me in the head.

That’s the moment that I fall unconscious.

And that’s when this story actually begins.

NEXT CHAPTER

Molt – Chapter Fourteen

The Weeping Angel

FRIDAY, OCTOBER THIRTY-FIRST. A thick screen of milky white fog covers the WELCOME TO SALEM sign, but I knew the instant we had arrived in Salem, as it was marked by a bat flying straight into the windshield. The only way it could have felt more like Halloween at this moment would be if the Headless Horseman were following along behind us. He just might be too, if the fake cobwebs that Templeton decorated the entirety of my car with weren’t preventing me from seeing the road behind us.

With Templeton behind the wheel, it had only been a thirty-five minute drive from Boston to Salem, but it seemed as long as the boat trip to Hades must feel like. Through the gate at Lake Avernus. Although I was hoping our destination wouldn’t be nearly as final.

The buildings in Salem have what is often referred to as ‘charm,’ but they only seem old and run-down to me. And yet, all of the boxy First Period and Gothic Revival architecture seems to take on an absolute feeling, as though something horrible had happened in each and every one of these houses at some point in history. Were there really ghosts behind every wall in Salem? Or does this place simply have the knack for playing tricks on one’s mind?

The city of Salem is an odd one. Many people still associate it with the Salem Witch Trials of 1692; and that’s the first thing I thought of too when Templeton suggested this trip. But even if that’s not all that the city has to offer, they do a good job at making it appear otherwise. Salem police cars have witch logos on their doors. We drive by a public school and I notice the name: Witchcraft Heights Elementary. There’s a ‘GO WITCHES!’ sign hanging beside the high school football field.

I take another Three Musketeers from the warm dashboard and gobble it down as I try to confirm with Templeton just what exactly it is we’re doing here tonight. “Tell me again why I agreed to come here?” My Sunda Varanus blend, an unanticipated earthy complexity of smooth-bodied flavor, had been empty five minutes into the drive.

“You know you didn’t have to come along,” he replies, with his usual absence of romance. Why is it that the incantation of the words Templeton speaks makes it sound as though he had not only planned to come to Salem alone, but that having me here with him bothers him to no end? I try and find reasons why I shouldn’t want to be here with him, but I’m finding it more and more difficult to feel as though I don’t need Templeton anymore. It’s funny to think about how quickly people can change.

We follow Lafayette Street all the way to Salem Common, where we find ourselves right in the middle of what Templeton had referred to as the Haunted Happenings festival. It’s a steaming cauldron full of parading candlelit walking tours, kids dressed as ghouls, pirates and Harry Potters, vendor tables full of charms, voodoo dolls, kettle corn, pies and candy apples, and the odd booth set up by local psychic readers. I shiver as the eerie music and wicked laughter streaming through the air scratches along my skin.

There’s a row of zombies beside us, stumbling along the sidewalk. Their makeup is grotesque, with open wounds and faces covered with blood. One appears to have taken a gunshot to the skull, and it reminds me a little of the male Hairy Woodpecker (Picoides villosus), which is easily spotted because of the red patch of feathers on the back of his head. Unlike zombies though, the woodpecker has probably the strongest brain in all the animal kingdom. They lack cerebrospinal fluid, so their brains are packed tightly, preventing it from bouncing against the skull and causing damage when it pecks wood at twenty blows per second. Although far less advanced, I imagine the brains of these zombies are probably about the same size as a woodpecker’s. They try to entertain us by swarming around my car, slowing us down. Templeton just lays on the horn and speeds up a little, almost running over their sticky, blood-covered legs. A few of the zombies break character, and curse at us as the car peels around the corner.

Templeton parks in a small, empty lot. I direct his attention to one of the signs clearly indicating that parking is not permitted here due to the festivities. He quickly dismisses the warning, and tells me, “Don’t worry about it. We’re not bothering anyone.”

I realize then that all of his “don’t worry about its” are starting to add up, and they’re really beginning to grate my nerves.

He turns the engine off, pockets my keys and gets out of the car. He seems to take in everything around us, as if for the first time. With all of my upper-body strength, I push the frozen passenger door open and step out into the cold night.

“Let’s get a look at you then,” Templeton says, turning in my direction. These are the first words he’s spoken in the last three days that show any interest in me at all. I flatten my costume down with my palms, still warm from holding them against the heater for the last half hour.

There’s a costume shop on Newbury Street that opens up for six weeks of the year around Halloween, and I stopped in for the first time on Wednesday after work to pick something out. Spotting an intricate pair of sparkling, feathered wings on one of the mannequins, I decided to start there. Angels intrigue me, as they seem like nothing more than the perfect marriage of humans and birds. The inclusion of the attached glittering sequins aside, these wings would certainly never be adequate for an angel’s flight. The elliptical wing shape is completely inaccurate, as the low aspect ratio of elliptical wings on birds allows for tight maneuvering in confined spaces, such as dense vegetation.

I put my mastery of the science aside, and I bought the angel wings. The rest of the costume didn’t matter much to me at the time, so I finished the look off with a green knee-length velour dress with sleeves so long that they cover my hands and black fishnet stockings. Of course, now that I’m standing in a Salem parking lot on this cold October night, I’m beginning to wonder why I’ve never seen pictures of angels wearing insulated pants and ski jackets.

“It’s a good look for you Bella,” he says. It might be unintentional, but Templeton sometimes says the sweetest things to me at oddest of times. And for once, he isn’t following it up with something rude.

If my costume had been telling this story, it would be awfully close to the truth.

I try to straighten my secondary covert feathers, brushing them downwards. “I think the wings got bent on the ride up here.”

Templeton studies them for a moment. “You do realize that the mechanics of those wings wouldn’t help you achieve flight, don’t you?” Maybe this is the insult I was expecting, but if it is, then it’s an extremely educated one with very little threat behind it. Wing shape aside, an angel could never become airborne, since they lack the powerful muscles attached to a deep-keeled breastbone. And angels don’t have the hollow bones and toothless jaws as birds do, an evolutionary development that cuts down on body mass.

Blue checkmark.

“I know,” I say to him. “It’s pretty obvious, isn’t it?”

“Come on, let’s get moving.” Templeton takes my sleeve-covered hand, and we walk into the crazed streets of Salem. “It wouldn’t have killed you to show a little more leg, you know.”

“Unfortunately for your libido, I’m not that kind of angel. I’m the good kind.”

“Says you.”

I should point out the fact that Templeton isn’t wearing a costume tonight. It seemed so important to him that I dress up for Halloween, but when he showed up at my apartment earlier wearing nothing but his usual attire, I had to ask him:

ME: “You said if I was going to come with you, I would need a costume. Correct?”

HIM: “That’s right.”

ME: “Well, what about you then? What are you supposed to be?”

HIM: “I’m nothing.”

ME: “If I’m going to be something, you can’t be nothing. It doesn’t work that way.”

HIM: “Fine. If it makes you happy, I’m a pedestrian.”

ME: “A Pedestrian? You can’t be a pedestrian for Halloween if I’m going to walk around dressed like this. That’s a total copout Templeton.”

HIM: “Maybe so, but was it ever agreed upon that I would be wearing a costume tonight?”

ME: “Well…no. But that’s not the point. As far as I’m concerned, you’re dressed as a hypocrite.”

HIM: “Fine then. I’m a hypocrite. Can we just get going already?”

Templeton holds onto my hand as he navigates us through the streets, winding his way seemingly unnoticed through the costumed crowd in true pedestrian fashion.

The colors, smells and sounds are overwhelming my senses. The people of Salem live for this moment; as though they’ve planned all year for this festival, and as soon as it’s over they’ll begin plans for the next one. Their costumes range from the frightening to the playful, and everything in between. I see witches with noses shaped like those of the Long-Billed Curlew (Numenius americanus). I see a can-can dancer with the train of an Indian Peafowl (Pavo cristatus) on her head. I see a child dressed as a bat, but with large leathery wings on his back like a bird, rather under his arms like a bat’s should be. All of them make my angel costume appear so meager by comparison. There are firecrackers exploding everywhere. Dogs are barking. Werewolves are howling. Crazed denizens of the night run right up into my face and shake their tongues, hoping for a scare. Smoke machines are generating so much thick smoke that I can’t even see where we parked the car anymore. Scents of sulfur, incense and kids smoking pot all mix together and irritate my nostrils. Children bump me. People push me. There’s broken glass on the road and it crackles between the snow and my footsteps.

I take in a long, deep breath as soon as we emerge from the dense crowds. Templeton leads me to a cemetery, just one of many in Salem. The old rusted gate is locked up, seemingly since the turn of the century. Last century, that is. Templeton hops over the gate, waving for me to follow.

“There’s no way I’m going in there,” I say.

“Come on.” He urges me from the other side. “Why not?”

“Because it’s not right. That’s a graveyard Templeton.”

“So what?”

I don’t want to tell him that being here right now only reminds me of one thing; and that’s Claude, and the fact that he’s still missing. Already twice now tonight, Templeton has asked me to stop brooding over my loss. “I just don’t want to be thinking about death at a time like this,” is what I tell him. “That’s all.”

“Are you kidding me? There’s no better time than this. Come on.”

I still haven’t spoken to Templeton yet about his strange behavior at my place on Monday night, nor did I make a deal out of the fact that he got up and left me without a saying a word. I’ve gotten used to the fact that this man operates a little differently than most people. And if I asked him, he certainly wouldn’t give me a straight answer anyway.

As Templeton helps me over the gate I tear my stocking on one of the protruding metal spikes. This cemetery must be one of the oldest ones in the city, and I can tell there must not be a groundskeeper here anymore since the weeds are growing everywhere. Many of the tombstones are all but covered in a splattering of overgrown dandelions, ivy and Virginia creeper. What really strikes me is the richness and elegance of these old gravestones: highly decorated and elaborately carved sandstone, marble and limestone markers, all ranging in size. This cemetery is not just filled with uninteresting run-of-the-mill tablet-style headstones; there’s a wide assortment of scattered, beautiful stone-carved markers.

Many of these are embellished with avian figures, popular amongst cemetery symbolism. Sitting birds on a headstone generally signify eternal life, while birds in flight commonly symbolize resurrection. Specific types of birds can represent different ideas altogether. The large tombstone I’m standing next to right now has a dove with an olive branch, a symbol for peace.

Templeton’s already forty feet ahead of me. “Where are you going, anyway?” I call out to him. He doesn’t acknowledge my question though. He keeps walking away from me, disappearing into the fog.

I run to catch up, dodging gravestones as best I can. I pass a tombstone with a Rooster (Gallus gallus) on it, which represents awakening or resurrection. I see a Bank Swallow (Riparia riparia) and I instantly recall its purpose as a sign for hope, fertility and the renewal of life. There is another headstone embellished with a Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) wrapped in stars and stripes, signifying liberty and eternal vigilance.

After a few minutes of cautious footsteps, I find Templeton waiting for me. He’s smoking a cigarette and sitting on another forgotten grave off in the back of the cemetery. This one is a large sandstone block, on top of which is a four-foot tall sculpture of an angel weeping. Her wings are spread high above her head, with one of them only half the size, having crumbled apart after years of neglect. Her tears of poison ivy wind all the way from her hands to her mossy feet. It’s beautiful though, and one of the most striking statues in the entire graveyard.

The plaque on the stone block reads:

WILLIAM S. ENDICOTT: MAY 29, 1799 – OCT. 31, 1841.

ROSE M. ENDICOTT: JUN. 1, 1810 – OCT. 31, 1841.

Above each name is an etching of a winged face, which represents an effigy of the deceased souls, also known as the Flight of the Soul. I wonder what intriguing event transpired that William and Rose would both die on the same date, and today’s date no less. I’m also wondering why I ever agreed to come to this horrible place.

Templeton blows out a puff of smoke. The nicotine wisp blends seamlessly into the fog. “Do you ever think about the dead?” he muses.

I hope that this is a simple question that will quickly head somewhere else, because all I can envision in my head is Claude being uncovered behind a dumpster somewhere. I recall sitting outside Templeton’s apartment three weeks ago and I summon up the image of the dead pigeon with the crushed skull on the sidewalk. And I remember the bloody raven lying on my open textbook. Of course I think about death. “Isn’t that normal?”

“Yeah but…” he takes another drag of his cigarette, “…what’s the fucking point?”

“You mean, why we can’t all live forever? I think that would get pretty lackluster after a while. Imagine eight million years of this.”

My humorous attempt bounces off of him, unnoticed. He stamps the ground with his foot as he continues his thought. “All of these bodies buried beneath us had to die in order to get to where they are now. So what’s the reason for living for so long if all you’re doing is simply waiting for the end to come?”

“Is that what we’re doing right now?” I ask him. But more specifically, I ask, “Are you just waiting for the end?”

I don’t get an immediate response, but that’s fine. I honestly hadn’t gotten my hopes up that I would actually receive one. Templeton continues to smoke his cigarette, as though the question was never asked. The sounds of a thousand firecrackers pop and crackle in the distance. Bursts of light seep though the mist and reflect off of Templeton’s face. A cold shiver shoots up my spine when I imagine the hundreds of dead people lying no more than six feet below me.

“You seem uneasy Bella.” As much as I dislike hearing him call me Isabella, I think I’m even more bothered by Bella. There’s something about the way he says it that seems to scare me a little bit more. Especially tonight, given the setting.

“It’s this graveyard. You know I’m not comfortable being here.”

Templeton holds his cigarette out towards me. “You should have a smoke. It helps.”

“No thanks. I’ve never been one for peer pressure.”

“Come on,” he presses. “Just one puff is perfectly harmless. It’ll help calm your nerves.”

I take the lit cigarette from his steady hand, and examine it for a second before plugging it into my mouth. I inhale. I let the smoke wrap around my tongue. I can feel it winding down my throat. I almost feel like I’m choking, and I uncontrollably cough it back up. The exhaled smoke from my mouth mixes seamlessly with the fog surrounding us. The cigarette falls from my hand into a patch of snow at my feet, extinguishing it immediately. I imagine this is no different from anyone’s first attempt at smoking, but the taste in my mouth has a comfortable familiarity to it.

“You feel better now, don’t you?” Templeton asks, still perched on the grave marker.

“Not really,” I cough the words out. Now I’m thinking about a whole mess of new problems; like cancer, heart disease, emphysema and possible birth defects for my hypothetical children.

“You’ll get used to it.” He takes another cigarette from his pocket and lights it up. I’m staring again; I don’t know why I’m so compelled to watch his face whenever it’s illuminated.

“How long have you smoked anyway?”

He leans against the weeping angel now, thinking back to the point of time in question. “I don’t remember.” And just when I think he’s planning on leaving the subject there, giving me one of his usual non-informative answers, he continues. “I used to have a girlfriend in Schenectady. She was the one who first convinced me to start smoking. She said that she liked the taste of cigarettes on guys’ tongues when she kissed them.”

“That’s pretty gross,” I say, finding a disturbing familiarity in what this unnamed girlfriend had practiced.

“She had long blonde hair and green eyes, just like you. But her fingernails were always painted brown. I remember thinking how unusual it was for a girl to have these muddy brown nails. Then one day she painted them orange, and that was the day that I dumped her.”

“You broke up with her because she painted her nails a different color?”

“I broke up with her because she made out with practically every other guy in school.”

“When I was in high school, I had a boyfriend who smoked. I admit that I started to get used to that taste in his mouth when we kissed.”

“Oh yeah? What was his name?”

“That’s not really important,” I say meekly, thinking that I would probably die of embarrassment should Templeton find out Claude’s name. For the first time, I start to wonder what Templeton’s childhood must have been like. How many girlfriends did he have? How many had he slept with? How long had he lived in Schenectady? Did he have any siblings? Surely his home life could not have been any stranger than mine was. What did I have? Three hundred brothers and sisters? I’ve never discussed the finer details of my past with Templeton. Like I said before, our relationship was mostly just sex and homework anyway.

“Did your parents approve of this guy?” he asks me.

I wonder why he’s showing this sudden interest, but I can’t afford to miss out on what might pass as a meaningful conversation. “They only met him once,” I say. All I can envision is my parents in the halls of Doneau High, surprising me at my locker on Valentine’s Day. “It was awkward, to say the least.”

He takes another long drag on his cigarette. “Those kinds of things usually are.”

I think about my parents a little more, and I try my best to see things from their perspective for once. “Honestly though, I never really understood my mother and father very well. I couldn’t figure out how they could ever be happy with the lives that they had chosen. But I think I was like any other kid: I only ever wanted to be something special. Someone completely unlike my parents.”

“And now?” He asks, as though sensing a change of attitude.

“Now?” I want to tell Templeton that I think it was inevitable that I would feel the way I do now; that sooner or later everyone decides their parents really did have it all figured out. Now I’m yearning for the simplicity, for the normalcy of everything they had. I opt to leave out the more complicated details though. “Now I think that I need to re-evaluate those ideas. Now I think that I’m simply ready for a change.”

“I think you are too.” Templeton blows four or five smoke rings from his mouth. Aside from cartoon characters, I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone do that before.

“What about your parents Templeton? What are they like?”

His answer is short and delivered quickly. “My mom is dead.” He doesn’t seem fazed at all by the thought of it. “And I have no idea who my father was.”

“I’m sorry,” is the best that I can do. In a way, I guess Templeton is kind of an orphan himself. Just one more from the litter of angels.

“Don’t worry about it,” he says, as though he’s been telling people the same thing for
years. “It’s not your fault.”

I’m at a loss for words. Maybe I shouldn’t have tried to be so inquisitive about his past. I should have left our relationship where it was. I’m sure Templeton’s probably dealt with it for a long time now, and has already gotten over any negative feelings about his childhood.

Still, I can’t stop myself from saying it again, “I’m sorry.”

“What do you think ever happened to Claude?” He asks me. Even though I didn’t tell Templeton the name of the boy from my past with the cigarette tongue, that’s the first image that comes to mind. It doesn’t help that the two of them are so remarkably similar. Just replace the sandstone block he’s sitting on with the yellow electrical box behind the gymnasium. Voila.

But I come to my senses before answering him, and I recall the tragic disappearance of my bird on Monday night. “I have no idea what happened to him. I don’t really want to think about it.”

Templeton removes the infamous googly-eyed frog from his pocket, and suggestively rattles the change around inside of it. I still find it hard to believe how cruel he can be sometimes. Sadly though, I’m starting to get used to it.

“How can you even imply something so awful?” I ask him.

“Too soon?”

“It’s just all this talk about death. Can we please discuss something else?” I rub my arms, trying my best to not feel the cold.

But Templeton won’t change the subject for me. “He was locked in a cage and down to his last wing. Don’t you think that bird was ready to die? It’s like I said earlier: what’s the reason for living for so long if all you’re doing is waiting for it all to come to an end?”

“Well, I’m not ready to die! Is it so wrong for someone to try and find something in life to enjoy?”

“People don’t deal with death well enough. They’re all bound to it, but they just try and ignore it.”

“People like me you mean?”

“It’s everyone, Bella.”

I think back to our conversation on the sidewalk a few weeks ago. When he told me that I would only see the negativity surrounding death, whereas he would look for the signs of life instead. Now he seems to be contradicting his earlier beliefs. Templeton stuffs the frog back into his coat pocket.

The noise from the streets of Salem is so loud I’m finding it hard to focus. I can still hear the firecrackers and the children laughing and the witches cackling and the werewolves howling, all in celebration of the most haunted holiday of all.

I almost make another worthless point, but I let Templeton continue instead.

“Have you ever heard of The Dick Van Dyke Show?

“What?” Sometimes I find it hard to keep up with his wildly random thoughts. “Dick Van Dyke?”

“Did you get that program up in Canada? You must have.” He kicks the heel of his shoe against the grave marker, and some ash from his cigarette flutters to the ground. “I remember watching a rerun when I was about eight years old. My mom used to think it was funny.” Templeton leans back, and tilts his head up, blowing smoke at the unseen stars. “There was one episode that was taped right after everyone had found out Kennedy was assassinated. They had all heard the news during rehearsals, and the episode was filmed a few days later. The actors still delivered their lines, but to an empty audience. I guess because nobody felt like laughing. It didn’t matter though; the laugh track was added after all of the jokes anyway, whether they were funny or not. But you could see tears just behind their eyes. They all tried to hide it, but they couldn’t. There’s this unseen black cloud hanging above them all when you watch that episode. Even if you saw it today and didn’t know what the reasons were, you would still feel it.” Templeton spits a wad of phlegm into the dirt. A tree above him is dripping melted snow, and he shakes the cold drops out of his hair. “All of the camera angles were slightly askew too. My mom didn’t pick up on any of it, but I did.” I wonder what the point of this story is, and he stops for a moment to try and understand my reaction. “Don’t you see? They were all trying to ignore death. Whether they knew it or not, they were all just waiting for their own end to come, but at the same time they weren’t about to let anything allow them to acknowledge it.”

I shuffle my feet around in the snow, half in an attempt to warm them up and half due to this nervous feeling inside me. Templeton is talking strangely, stranger than usual. His peculiar fascination with death is beginning to scare me a little. The fog seems to be getting thicker. The fireworks continue to flash off his face, but they’re fainter now. “Is this why you brought me here?” I ask him. “To tell me about The Dick Van Dyke Show?”

“We’re just talking Bella. It was only a memory that came to mind. Besides, I didn’t bring you anywhere tonight. You followed me, remember?”

I don’t answer him. Instead, I search his eyes with mine. I see if I can go longer than him without blinking. I lose in less than ten seconds.

“Why are you fidgeting? What are you scared of Bella?”

“I already told you.”

There’s an uncomfortable silence between the two of us for a few moments. He continues to smoke, while I remain shivering in the cold. Templeton is picking at the statue beside him. He’s digging his fingernails into the cracks of the angel’s wing, collecting the built-up moss and dirt onto his fingertip.

I can’t help but ask him the very same question he refused to answer just minutes ago. “Are you the same way Templeton? Are you sitting around waiting for the end to come?”

“Me? No. I have better things to be doing with my time here.”

“Really. Unlike me, right?”

“Exactly. Unlike you. And unlike all of these people around us, who have already begun to walk the path of angels.”

“Angels?” The sparkling wings on my back catch my peripheral vision. “Well I’m already an angel, so I don’t need to wait, do I?”

“You’re only dressed as an angel babe. You’re not the real deal.”

“So you believe in angels?”

He keeps picking away at the rock with his fingers, answering me most matter-of-factly. “Of course I do.”

“Really? Are you serious?”

“Of course I am.” I think this is the first time that Templeton has ever convinced me that he believes in anything at all. “Maybe not in the way you might think, but I do.”

“Well, have you ever seen an angel before?”

“You mean a real one, right? Not just a costume?”

“Right.”

“Not yet. You?”

“No. But I don’t believe in angels.”

“Well then…” Templeton finally removes himself from his perch. He jumps down onto the ground below him with a thump so solid that the bones of William and Rose Endicott probably rattle beneath him. “That’s a pretty strange costume choice you’ve made.”

“At least I made a choice.”

“Do you know what an angel is?”

This is the same question I asked my father when I was a little girl. “Angels are just like you and me and your mother,” is what he told me.

“I have no idea,” I say.

“What’s their purpose?”

“They’re regular people that just want to help one another out,” is what my father said.

“I don’t know.”

“Some people will tell you they’re guardians. Some will say that angels are messengers. You might even hear that they’re supposed to be warning signs for the Apocalypse, if you could ever believe in shit like that.”

“I don’t,” I tell him.

“Neither do I Bella. But that’s what people will tell you. Because that’s what people will believe.”

“So what is it that you believe in Templeton? If you refuse to believe what you’ve been told?”

He takes one last drag of his cigarette before tossing it over the fence. “To molt is to change, correct? To change is to evolve. Let’s just say it all comes down to evolution.”

I look him over, and watch as the lights continue to bounce from his face to my wings, and back again. This was the same thing he had said to me in my class a month ago. To molt is to change, whether psychologically or physically. Temporarily or permanently. I still don’t quite understand what he means.

“Listen Bella, don’t think me any less intelligent than you because my beliefs differ from yours.”

“That’s ridiculous. You’re the most brilliant student I have. You know that.”

Templeton turns his eyes to look beyond the graveyard. There’s a small cluster of old heritage homes in the distance. There aren’t any lights on, but even from here I can see the shadowy outlines of three people wandering around out there. One of them appears to be walking awkwardly, as though hopping on one leg. Probably just some kids looking for somewhere quiet to drink and get high. Templeton notices them too, but he turns back to look at me. “Don’t condemn me for having different feelings than you do Bella.” I’m not certain if he’s still referring to the angels, or if he’s moved on to our relationship. “I can’t force you to wholly believe in the same things I believe, but at the very least, I can make you accept it.”

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

Templeton just stands there, his hands in his pockets. I have no reply for him. No answer for any question still hanging unasked. I don’t know if I want to move closer to him, or further away. All of the angels and winged sculptures surrounding us seem to be on the edge of their gravestones, just waiting for me to make my next move. This man has always made me unsure of myself. He’s never left my side without leaving me questioning something gone unmentioned. Was it right for me to feel this way? He stands there looking me over. I don’t want to, but I feel as though he’s trying to push me away.

He walks back over to the weeping angel. I imagine it’s still warm from him sitting there for the last fifteen minutes. He brushes some more dirt off with his sleeve. “Do you see this grave? This is the reason I come to Salem every Halloween. William and Rose are distant relatives of mine; seven generations removed. William was a fisherman here, and he fished for Atlantic cod. Rose gave birth to John Endicott, who was my great-great-great-great Grandfather.”

I feel foolish. I feel as though I’d forced myself to come along to Salem with Templeton tonight when it’s clear now that he was only coming here for personal reasons. I still don’t know what I want to tell him, but it’s okay because it was inevitable that he would once again beat me to the punch anyway.

“Would you mind leaving me alone for a moment? Maybe you should wait for me back at the car.”

“Can’t I just wait for you by the gate? You know this place gives me the creeps.”

“Wait for me at the car. I think I’d like to spend a few minutes alone here.” He stands beside the grave, just waiting for me to leave him.

“It’s freezing out here,” I plead with him. But I don’t receive any further response. He’s unmoving. Unwavering. The kids in the distance have disappeared from sight. “Will you take me home after this?”

“Of course I will. I’ll see you in a few minutes.”

I don’t have anything else to say. I turn around and wind my way back out of the cemetery. I lift myself over the gate, and tear my stocking again on the metal spike. Eerily, the fog seems to clear as soon as I return to the sidewalk.

I’m waiting for over an hour before Templeton shows up. He still had my car keys in his pocket, so I’ve been huddled up on the ground beside the passenger door trying to keep myself as warm as I can with what little I’m wearing. I make an attempt at wrapping my angel wings around myself, but they keep springing back open. As if they want to take me away from here, to lift me off the gravel parking lot and take me somewhere better.

I was relieved to find that there was no parking ticket folded under the windshield wipers, so Templeton was right when he told me not to worry about it. However, there is a scratch on the hood that wasn’t there before. Somebody carved ‘PUFFIN’ on my car with a knife by the looks of it. Whatever it was that the unknown vandal had meant by it, I find it hard to imagine it has something to do with the auk of the same name. I have no idea how much it’s going to cost me to get it fixed, but I’m not terribly concerned at the moment. I just want to get out of Salem.

I try to ignore Templeton when he does shows up; partly because I’m ashamed I gave him such a difficult time in the graveyard, but mostly because he left me trapped outside of my car, unable to warm my hands up against the dashboard heater. Conveniently, he ignores me too, and simply opens the trunk and then slams it shut again.

He comes back around to the front where I’m crouched in a ball and holding my wings in my icy fingers. He slides a toque over his head. “It’s fucking cold out here tonight, isn’t it?”

I roll my eyes in total agreement.

“You know, you’d have been warmer if you kept walking around, instead of just sitting there.”

“Probably. Or you could have given me my keys before sending me off. Where’d you get that toque anyway?”

“I had it in your trunk.”

“Since when did you start keeping things in my trunk?”

“I’ve got a shit-load of stuff back there.” It’s misdirection; he doesn’t answer the question, but rather he amuses me by creating a slew of new ones. And just like a magician, he makes a pack of cigarettes appear from up his sleeve. “I’ve got smokes in there too.” He takes one out and lights it up.

“Some nitwit carved the word PUFFIN on my hood while we were gone.”

He looks at the scratches, correctly identifying the genus, “Ah…Fratercula.” He mumbles something else to himself, but I can’t make out the words. He turns and looks off nowhere in particular, speaking as though whoever committed the act might still be listening. “That’s not a very nice thing to do, Fuckhead.”

My wings spring open again, and I stand up now, rubbing myself in another failing attempt to warm up. “Do you really have to use language like that all of the time?”

He laughs a little. “Is me calling someone a Fuckhead any different from you using such charmingly derogative names like nitwit? Or Cheese Monkey? Or Dilly Bar?

“There is a difference, yes. I was raised better than that.”

“Come on. Just give me a ‘Fuckhead.’ I left you out here in the freezing cold; it’s the least you could do. Really lay it on me.”

“I don’t think so.”

Shit-For-Brains?

“No.”

“How about Cunt Flap?

“Templeton, please.”

“Well how about this then: how about you promise me that you’ll make your last words the most appalling words you can think of?”

“My last words?”

“You know, right before you die. Just yell ‘em out loud for everyone to hear.”

“I’ll try to remember that when it happens,” I tell him. “Can we just get going now?”

“But of course, my lady.” Templeton graciously opens the passenger door for me, and I climb inside. I’m already pre-adjusting the heater settings in preperation for when he turns the engine on. But he insists on finishing his cigarette outside before fulfilling any of my needs. My anger might be enough to warm me up anyway.

As we find our way back out of Salem, a couple of firetrucks blast by us, sirens blaring. Of course Templeton doesn’t pull off to the side of the road to ensure them easy passage. I can’t help but notice that there’s a house on fire in the distance. It appears to be one of the old heritage homes that I’d spotted earlier this evening from the graveyard.

I point out the house to Templeton, who replies with a very disinterested, “Well, well. Now that’s a fucking shame, isn’t it?”

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.

NEXT CHAPTER

Molt – Chapter Two

Litter of Angels

ISABELLE ROCHELLE DONHELLE. If you can believe it, that’s really my name. My parents absolutely adore it, and not surprisingly, I detest it. I’ve always considered it to be the creatively bland and tragically comedic outcome of my parents’ painfully oblivious concoction. I prefer to go by ‘Bella,’ but even that is an uncomfortable stretch for me. I know what you’re thinking though: “why doesn’t she just change it?” Well, that’s just what the problem here is, isn’t it?

My parents have always been proud of me, and I was almost proud of myself too until about a week ago. It’s funny how self-esteem can take a nosedive so quickly, when given the right opportunities. And even though things have gone about as downhill as they can, I’ll bet my parents would still be proud of me right now. From the outside, most people would probably call it unconditional love; from where I’ve been standing for most of my life, I’d just call them nuts. The kind of nuts you want to avoid like an allergic reaction.

If my parents had been telling this story, instead of me, they’d probably be proud of it too.

The Donhelles live in the small town of Ville Constance. That’s in northern Quebec. Ville Constance’s origins are believed to be tied to Saint Constantina, but all indications point to its literal meaning, ‘Constant City,’ as being a far more accurate interpretation of its history. Nothing ever seemed to change much in Ville Constance.

My father worked at the local paper mill, along with most of the other fathers in town. He worked hard and tirelessly to put food on our table. Mom didn’t work; she cleaned the house and cooked all day. Every day. I’d be willing to bet that our house was the cleanest house in all of Quebec, maybe even in all of Canada. There was always the aroma of food in our home, but the smell of warm pastries, soups and meatloaf was vastly overpowered by the smell of cleaning products. When Mom took another pie out of the oven, no one could tell if it was apple, blueberry, lemon, rose or pine.

She was never diagnosed, but my mother was an obvious obsessive-compulsive. One of the most traumatic events I can remember from my childhood was the day I placed my glass of orange juice on the coffee table without setting the cork coaster down first. She totally freaked out. To this day, I cannot bring myself to put anything on any coffee tables for fear of something ruining the finish. I don’t remember losing my first tooth, or getting my first ‘A’ in school, but I certainly remember The Great Coaster Incident.

They might sound a touch cliché, but those were my parents. The stern, burly father who works assiduously in the factory sixty hours a week, and comes home to find his pipe, slippers and daily sports page waiting for him beside his favorite chair. The happy little homemaker who makes her kid tuna fish sandwiches for school lunches, takes all the drapes down three times a week for a thorough cleaning and is never seen in the kitchen without her trademark pink apron on. The one with the word ‘MOM’ stitched right on the front. I certainly didn’t notice any of their faults when I was a kid; I loved them no matter what. I still love them today, but those annoying habits and eccentricities that went unnoticed when I was twelve-years-old have flared up to near-horrific proportions. We’re talking Mothra-like magnitude.

It’s as though I could stick my hand into a hat filled with quirks, foibles and idiosyncrasies, and Mom and Dad could match any one I drew. Here we go: Dad, you get incessant throat-clearing, involuntary use of the speaking voice while reading and complete unawareness of anyone within twenty feet of you during a hockey game; and Mom, you get washing the floors at three AM, spying on the neighbors at night from the second floor with the lights off and the ability to refer to anybody as ‘sweetheart.’ Anybody at all. The paperboy. Her gynecologist. Even the Prime Minister when she met him once. And here, you two can fight over unnatural flatulence.

As far as brothers and sisters went, I could never keep track. You see, there was an orphanage just down the street from us, and they were constantly running out of space for the children. So the orphanage struck a deal with my parents, and Mom and Dad took one or two of the kids off their hands for days, weeks or even months at a time. And just so the children didn’t get the feeling that they had it better than any of the others, the orphanage took them back in, and gave us another one. This exchange happened every week or so. I imagine that it couldn’t have been too good for the well being of the kids, but they seemed to like coming to the Donhelle home, even if it was only for a day or two. And nobody else asked any questions or ever showed much concern over the entire situation. In the time that I lived at home, I must have seen three hundred different children sleeping in the spare room next to mine. Three hundred different siblings sitting across from me at the dinner table. Three hundred different brothers and sisters stinking up the bathroom in the morning before I left for school.

For a while I thought that maybe I was just another orphan myself, the one kid that the orphanage didn’t want back. I presumed that my parents kept up the whole ‘child intern’ cover in order to make me feel special. Of course, whenever I thought of this scenario, it only ever made me feel worse about myself. Was I really an only child, or was I just one more from the litter of angels?

If I hadn’t been an only child.

I did form some close bonds with a small number of the kids we looked after. I even did what I could to find families for them. I put up posters on telephone poles and at school on the wanted board. I made flyers that I delivered to random houses, apartment buildings and local businesses, hoping that someone out there would consider something that they might not have otherwise thought about. I included hand-drawn pictures and biographies of some of my favorites in an effort that they might be chosen. However, some of them unintentionally started to sound like ads for used cars:

“Annie. A radiant little six-year old who loves pancakes and soda crackers. She’ll warm your home and melt your heart. Just passed her check-up.”

“Daniel. Nine years of age. Sporty. Enjoys bedtime stories and baseball. Speaks with fluent Sir’s and Maam’s. Claustrophobic. Has a small scar on his forehead, but no serious damage.”

“Looking for a new owner: Monique. Dark-skin with green eyes. Eight years old, and still runs like new. Very quiet, clean, reliable. Pigtails are optional.”

Daniel and Annie had subsequently been snatched up by brand-new loving parents, but poor Monique was still there when I left home for university. Honestly, I don’t know which kids were happier though; the ones that eventually left the orphanage or the ones that stayed there. And I don’t know which ones I was happier for.

The one kid in particular that I can still remember quite clearly is Antonia. A chubby little girl who had nowhere else in the world she’d rather be than at the Donhelle house. She was actually taken in by my parents dozens of times, which was unusual since I only saw any of my siblings two or three times in my life.

I remember one time when Antonia had come upstairs to unload her bag in the spare bedroom. She was crying, but this was the usual routine with her. There was always some kind of problem with Antonia.

If Antonia had been telling this story, she’d only have cried about it.

I asked her, “What’s wrong now Antonia?”

“Ostrich,” she said to me.

“Pardon?”

“They call me Ostrich at the orphanage.” She sat on the bed and wiped the tears from her mouth so she could speak without slurring. “Everyone gets a nickname they said, so I’m Ostrich.”

I sat down next to her. We’d had these kinds of talks before. The last time she cried was because Tommy Hamil told her that food had gone missing from the orphanage. My brother Tommy accused my sister Antonia of stealing the food and hiding it in her pillowcase for a late-night snack.

“Ostrich isn’t so bad,” I told her.

“Michel Bourdon said that the ostrich is the fattest of all birds. That’s why it can’t fly. Just like me.”

Michel Bourdon? He was here just last week, sleeping in this very bed, I thought to myself. “Have you ever seen Michel Bourdon fly, Antonia?” I asked her. A line of drool dripped from the crease of her mouth onto the bed sheet. My mental countdown had started; I knew Mom would have the sheets changed and put into the wash in less than ten minutes.

“No.” Antonia looked up at me, wide-eyed, as if just realizing something important. She had a habit of always believing the very last thing anyone ever said to her. So I fed her another one.

“What’s his nickname?” I asked.

A bubble of saliva popped from her lips. “Pipes.”

Seriously? Pipes? Was this an orphanage or the mafia? “Well, you just tell Michel that a pipe can’t do anything but sit and rust, okay?” That probably wasn’t the best line I could’ve fed her, but it was quite likely she’d just forget it anyway. “Okay Antonia?”

“Yeah, okay,” she said, her eyes lighting up with delight. Running to leave the room, Antonia turned back to me to double check her facts. “Pipes can’t fly either, right?”

“I’ve never seen one fly,” I told her.

She giggled a little to herself, and dashed out into the hallway and down the stairs. It took me a few minutes before I could pull myself off that bed. I wondered how many lies Antonia must have had to believe to get through just one day at that orphanage. And how many lies I would have to tell her just to keep her there; to keep her as far away as possible from the world outside that I knew she wouldn’t ever be able to handle on her own. To keep her inside the safest nest I could find. There couldn’t possibly be a better place for her than that.

Antonia would never be willing to change. I knew that. As much as I would have liked her to, I realized then the truth was that some people were willing to change, and some people weren’t. It’s as simple as that. I never told Antonia how I really felt, because I knew deep down she really just wanted to belong. And what kind of big sister would I have been if I had ever denied her of those dreams?

NEXT CHAPTER