Molt – Chapter Eighteen

The Glorious Age of Templeton Rate

MONDAY, NOVEMBER TENTH. Last night, I wasted no time in packing my bags and taking the first Greyhound I could from Ville Constance to Sept-Îles. The first flight I could get to Montréal was at seven o’clock, and I didn’t get back into Boston until one in the morning.

Which is right about the time that I realized the magnitude of the whole situation.

I could see it as the plane neared the tarmac of Logan International: the murky black cloud hanging over and within the city in the near distance.

I could feel it from the taxi, as the cab emerged from Boston’s massive system of tunnels and onto Storrow Drive: the war-zone-like explosions reverberating off the back of the Charles River.

I could hear it on the radio: callers and talk-show hosts trying to understand how all of this was happening, and why it was happening to them. The cab driver explained to me that last night the Boston police had encouraged everyone in the city to stay indoors if they could, and that I was lucky to have flown in when I did because apparently the airport was expected to be shutting down all services. It seems the birds have at least temporarily won the competition for air space. And they’ve been battling for years. Black-Bellied Plovers (Pluvialis squatarola), Horned Larks (Eremophila alpestris), Mourning Doves (Zenaida macroura) and Upland Sandpipers (Bartramia longicauda) make up the biggest aircraft-bird collision threats in North America. The most tragic reported accident in US history occurred right here at the Logan International Airport in 1960, when a plane struck a murmuration of Common Starlings (Sturnus vulgaris vulgaris), clogging the engines and killing sixty-two of the seventy-two aboard when it crashed.

Nobody knew if these birds were dangerous, or if they might attack people at random. I, of course, know differently. I know that Templeton Rate had to have been involved somehow; his story about the “wasted potential” of Mandarin-speaking myna birds was all the evidence I needed when I first spotted the lyrebirds on the television.

And yet, I could hardly comprehend it myself as I returned to my apartment and looked out my window to see four Myna Birds (Acridotheres tristis) now perched on the telephone wires, their common screeches oddly replaced with blaring sirens. They’ve no doubt scared off the regular crowd of rock pigeons and American crows. I’m three stories off the ground, and it seems like there’s a fire truck right outside my window.

I look down into the alley to see a Northern Mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos) calling out with the fury of a jackhammer. It only intensifies as it bounces off the shallow cavern of Public Alley 434.

From the rooftop across the way, a lyrebird (Menura novaehollandiae) mimics a gunshot. And another. And another. Like an impatient sniper trying to rub me out.

I turn on the news, but I can barely hear it over the city’s newborn din.

It’s absolute chaos.

It’s utterly overwhelming.

It has to be Templeton Rate.

I leave my suitcase on the living room couch and I quickly exit my apartment. With only one destination in mind: Templeton’s apartment, where I’m hoping I’ll be able to find some kind of an answer.

I have to brush over a foot of snow off my car; it must have been coming down ever since I left for Ville Constance on Saturday morning. It takes about ten minutes to warm the car up, and as I sit with my doors locked, all I can hear are the jackhammers, the fire trucks and the gunfire that surround me.

As I pull out of the alley, there is another myna bird in front of me, cleverly mimicking a car alarm. A part of me wants to run over the thing just to make it shut up, but I swerve to avoid it instead.

I pass a group of Barred Parakeets (Bolborhynchus lineola), sitting together on the hood of a parked car and beeping like microwave ovens. Outside the Prudential Center sits a solitary Hill Myna (Gracula religiosa), and I do a double take as it strangely and unmistakably cries like an abandoned baby. Outside The Strangest Feeling, European Starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) mimic grinding metal, like a train coming to a hard stop. I hear a Sun Conure (Aratinga solstitialis) keeping the neighborhood awake as it mimics five blaring fire alarms at once. And from somewhere, there’s the infuriating soundtrack from Super Mario Brothers letting me know that an Olivaceous Cormorant (Phalacrocorax olivaceus) has just leveled-up.

The faintest hint of sun is rising from the east when I park my car outside Templeton’s apartment. There’s nobody around. Nothing but out-of-place birds making the most maddening sounds imaginable. I don’t blame people for staying inside, but what is anyone going to do about this?

I walk up the front stoop of the building, where an African Grey Parrot (Psittacus erithacus) is perched on the railing. I give him an odd look, partly because there’s no way an African grey parrot should be sitting alone in a Boston suburb, but partly because this is probably the first bird I’ve seen this morning that hasn’t been making an obscene racket. But just before I turn away to look for Templeton’s buzzer number, the bird opens its beak and swears at me, incredibly in a British accent.

“The fuck you lookin’ at?” he barks at me.

“Pardon me?” I say, already regretting my response.

“Fuck you,” he replies.

I can’t believe I’m having this conversation. The intercom has a number for ‘ZIRK,’ so I press it. I can’t hear anything from the speaker because of the clamor, but after a few moments, I’m buzzed in. Maybe he doesn’t care at all about who might be outside his apartment at three in the morning. As the door buzzer goes off, the parrot beside me mimics the sound. Except at around three times the volume. I’m careful to make sure it doesn’t follow me as I go inside.

I arrive at apartment 3G and knock on the door. I haven’t rehearsed in my head yet what I’m about to say, but I don’t care. I just want to know what’s going on outside.

Zirk opens the door. At least I think it’s him; it’s the lack of any brightly colored bodysuit that makes recognizing him difficult. His jet-black hair is slicked back and there are red rings under his eyes. He’s now wearing a long, black, tattered housecoat and there’s a bandage across the bridge of his nose, making him look something like a prizefighter. I consider the possibility that he’s simply switched from one costume to another.

“Do you know what time it is, gorgeous?” he emits a deep growl, almost like a buzzing chainsaw, after he speaks. I’m certain he didn’t sound like this before.

“No I don’t. Where’s Templeton?”

Where’s Templeton? Have you seen Templeton?” he says, mocking me. “Is that all you ever want to know?” He stops talking, but his growling continues for a little longer.

I try and look past him, and into the apartment. I don’t see anything that might indicate Templeton’s presence. There’s a very distinct fish-like smell though, like Zirk had just opened a can of sardines before I got here. I know that I don’t want to be going any further across the threshold. Zirk is waving his face close to mine, a little too close for my comfort. His nose almost touches mine. He’s swaying a little from side to side too, waiting for some kind of response from me.

“Have you seen what’s going on outside?” I ask him, challenging him to reveal any bit of information to me.

He doesn’t answer; he just keeps swaying back and forth and creeping me out.

“Do you know where Templeton is right now? Is he working?”

“Working? Templeton?” Underneath the bandage, I can see some sort of crusty formation on his nose. It looks like it might be infected.

“Yeah. Is he still doing the doorman thing?”

“This entire city is in lockdown,” he starts with some more rumbling under his breath. “If Templeton was smart, he’d be at your school right now. He told me that’s where I could find him if I needed to.”

Without another word, I turn around to leave. As I walk away, Zirk asks me if I want to come inside for a while, just to be safe. I ignore him, and keep on going.

The grey parrot is gone when I get back outside, replaced by some Cockatiels (Nymphicus hollandicus) that are wading through the snow around my car and ringing like old-fashioned telephones. I shoo them away, and head for the university in search of Templeton. I feel around the seats for any lost cigarettes, disappointed when I find nothing.

Along the way, I try to piece together exactly what has gone wrong here; these birds that are drowning out the city with their horrifying calls; the murder of Becky Chandler, and the subsequent disappearance of Professor Nickwelter; Nelson Hatch’s house burning to the ground; Claude disappearing; Templeton’s paper mysteriously showing up on my desk that night. Are they all related somehow? Does Templeton have the answers, like I’m starting to think he does? Or is it all still Mrs. Wyatt’s fault?

Maybe it’s my fault?

If I hadn’t left Ville Constance when I was seventeen.

If I hadn’t left Ville Constance when I was twenty-nine.

It’s three-thirty in the morning when I arrive at the university. There’s only one car in the parking lot: only Jerry Humphries’ ugly little beater of a vehicle. From somewhere, some feathered aberration is setting off fireworks, but there are no bright flashes of light to accompany the devastating sounds of explosions.

I park in my regular spot, even though I could probably pull up right in front of the ornithology entrance. I guess habits are much easier to pick up than they are to break.

Just as I reach for the door, I notice something fantastic; there’s a lone male King of Saxony Bird of Paradise (Pteridophora alberti) sitting to the right of the faculty entrance. I know immediately that it is a male, since it is the only bird in existence that sports such unique ornamental plumes: more than twice the length of its actual body, these two blue and brown scalloped brow plumes are extraordinary. He watches me, just as I watch him, but he doesn’t make any sound at all. It’s so breathtaking that I almost forget how crazy things have become, and how mad I am at Templeton right now. But then the bird scurries off around the side of the school, probably without thinking of me quite as fondly.

The door is unlocked, and the security system has been left unarmed. The halls are dark, but I know my way around by instinct so I leave the lights off. Like the echolocation of the Barn Owl (Tyto alba), I could probably guide myself through these halls using sound alone. Even with all of the noise outside, I can still hear my heels as they clack along the linoleum floor. I’ve never walked through this school when it’s been so empty, although I know it’s not quite as empty as it seems. I know Templeton is around here somewhere.

Doors creak. Windows shatter. It sounds like boiling water and witches cackling; something like a Halloween recording of frightening sounds. But this is no recording. Within the breaking glass, I can hear a Bull-Bellied Monarch (Neolalage banksiana). The witch’s laughter contains the call of the Eared Grebe (Podiceps nigricollis). Amazingly, through it all I pick out a hammering sound not too far away, and I know it must be coming from the south laboratory.

I haven’t been to the lab since last Monday, when Jerry Humphries had let me inside. That wooden structure was in there, as were the city’s beloved swan boats.

The south lab is locked tight, but with my ear to the cold iron door I can hear the undeniable sound of a hammer banging on metal. Maybe more than one.

I knock on the door, but the noise behind it doesn’t seem to take notice. I knock again, this time with all my strength. “Templeton!” I call out. The hammering continues. “Templeton? Are you in here?”

Silence. I take a step back from the door in anticipation.

“Who is that?” asks a voice from inside.

“It’s Isabelle. Let me in.”

And whoever it is asks me to hold on a moment, which turns into another minute or so of nothing. I kick at the bottom of the door with my foot a few times before I hear the locks turning.

Some kid I’m sure I don’t recognize opens the lab door. “Oh, hey,” he starts, obviously knowing who I am. “What are you doing here?” This kid, he’s a tubby little kid, standing about my height, and maybe twice as wide. There’s something odd about the shape of his head, but I can’t place it. And he’s got bags forming under his eyes, as though he hasn’t slept for days. I shouldn’t judge though, as I’ve probably got the same ones myself. I didn’t sleep on the plane, and I’ve been awake for nearly twenty-four hours now.

“This is my school,” I tell him. “What’s your excuse?”

He doesn’t say anything more, but steps back as I push the door open far enough to let myself in. From what I can see, there are two other bodies in here: another couple of kids I can’t identify are staring at me from the back of the lab. They’re both holding hammers and standing where that wooden frame was two weeks ago. The wooden structure that has now been replaced with a big metal box. Like a bank vault. Or a bomb shelter.

Like a hiding place.

Like a death trap.

This tubby kid is still holding the door open, waiting for me to say something.

“What’s going on in here? How did you get into the school at this time of night?”

“Mitchie let us in.”

Mitchie? Who’s Mitchie?”

One of the guys from the back of the room makes his way over. He’s on crutches and his right leg is in a cast. He’s wearing a faded red t-shirt and black shorts, even though it’s freezing in here. His nose is very pronounced, long and droopy, and his hair is cut to a short buzz-cut. “Jonah Mitcherson. But everyone calls me Mitchie. Don’t you recognize me, Professor Donhelle?”

I’m trying, but his face isn’t ringing any bells. “You’re a student here?”

“Shit, I’ve been in your class for like five months now.”

“Humphries gave you access to this space, didn’t he? You know this lab is strictly off-limits.” Now the third kid comes over, and the three of them all look at one another for an answer, but no one’s going to come out with one. “And what about you two? You’re students here too?”

“No,” says the fat one. “We go to Harvard.”

I tell the three of them to get out of the school before I call the police. They don’t even pack up their mess before leaving; they simply vanish without another word. Mitchie Mitcherson hobbles out on his crutches. Exactly one minute later, I’m wondering why I didn’t call the police anyway.

The back of the room is much cleaner now than it was the last time I was in here. No more table saw or wooden planks or mounds of sawdust. The tarp and giant bird shapes underneath it are all gone too. It’s just this big, cold, gleaming box.

I take a look along one side of the room, where there are cardboard boxes full of random bits and components of equipment I don’t understand. Sealed crates that are either waiting to be opened, or on their way out of here. There are a few boxes of books piled up on the table. Some books that are obviously from the university library, and some that are unmarked or missing their covers altogether.

There’s one box that has what appears to be a collection of old leather-bound notebooks from who knows when or where exactly. I pick one off the top of the pile; it’s a dusty hand-written journal of some kind, and rather small, only a few inches wide. The handwriting is atrocious, even worse than Templeton’s. But at least it’s not all dirt and charcoal. Flipping through, it seems to be a lot of formulas I can’t make sense of. A few scattered sketches on every other page. I check the front page to see if there’s some sort of identification, but before I can find any answers I hear footsteps from the hallway, coming towards the lab. I barely have enough time to conceal the journal in my coat pocket before turning to see Templeton in the open doorway.

“Bella?”

The last time I saw him I told him it was over between us. And he told me something about why Professor Nickwelter had killed that student of mine. The last time I saw him he was in my rearview mirror. That was one week ago, and since then the city of Boston has been turned into a bizarre kind of avian variety show.

Some bird somewhere makes the same sound my heart would make if it fell on the floor.

“What’s going on here Templeton? I come back here to find this city overrun with birds, and there’s some Harvard students building a big metal barn in my lab.”

He takes a look to the back of the room, towards the structure, without uttering a word.

“What is it?” I ask him, terrified.

“Well, for one thing, it’s not a barn. This is nothing more than a tool.”

“A tool? A tool for what?”

He wanders over to the giant metal box across the lab. He watches his own reflection upon the gleaming surface. I’m reminded of an avian territorial behavior known as window-fighting, where a bird will feel threatened by the reflection of itself in a window, or some other similarly reflective surface. I’ve read a study in which an American Robin (Turdus migratorius) fought its own reflection in the hubcap of a car for three straight days without knowing any different. The robin lost much of its own blood in those three days, and only conceded the fight when the car eventually drove away. But where fear and combativeness are hatched in birds, Templeton receives the exact opposite from his reflection. If anything, it calms him. Whatever this thing’s purpose is, Templeton seems satisfied with it. I can’t help but follow him over.

He runs his right hand along the shining flat metal. There’s a trail of sooty charcoal left behind from where his hand touches. Patting the box gently, he turns back to me. “It was designed for chemical testing. It’s completely airtight, so we can analyze volatile gases and other such constituents. And it’s done its job. But everything can be multipurpose Bella. We can still get some more use out of it.”

I’m afraid to ask, but I do anyway. “Like what, exactly?”

“Well for one thing, the forty-five hundred cubic feet would allow for about five-and-a-half hours of air,” he tells me. I can only assume that his math is correct. Finding the handle for the door, he pulls on it, making sure it’s sealed tight. He turns back and looks me right in the eye. “You would be very safe in here. Probably safer than anywhere else in this city.” There’s a glimmer in his eye. A couple of weeks ago I might have found this very same glimmer to be part of his charm, but now I can only describe as a portent of evil.

Me?

“Or anyone,” he says, hoping I’ll believe his words. “It would be the one place where you could stay the way you wanted to stay. If you wanted to resist change, or if someone wanted you to be denied of it.” His brow furrows, as though the words he speaks might be making him as uncomfortable as they make me. “If you wished to continue living out this dismal life you’ve been living, this would be your only hope.” It’s as though he couldn’t possibly understand what it must feel like to be someone other than himself. As though he would frown upon anything that might ever resist his ideas. “Your last chance at death. As you know death to be, that is.” As though he’s happy thinking about how he’d never really loved me in the first place.

“Right,” I say. I try not to show how much his words shake me to my core. “Who were those kids that were in here?”

“Mitchie and the others are helping me. But you don’t have to worry about them,” he says. “We’ve already established our pecking order.” He turns back to me with the same cocky grin I saw on his face that first night inside The Strangest Feeling. “How was your trip back home?”

“Not good. But certainly better than this. Templeton, there was an Eastern whipbird outside in the parking lot making noises like breaking bones. Birds like that shouldn’t be in North America.”

He pulls on the door again, but it still won’t budge. The muscles on his forearm tighten and relax with each tug. I wonder if there might be something inside already; something that Templeton means to keep trapped within the cold metal walls.

“There was a group of budgerigars waiting beside me at a traffic light. They sounded just like that big spinning wheel from The Price Is Right.”

My earlier feeling before about this room being bigger than I remembered was correct. I notice now there’s the empty outline on the floor of where a wall used to be. About three feet from the back of the room. Three feet of once-enclosed space is just small enough that nobody would ever suspect it was even hidden from sight in the first place.

“I saw a scarlet macaw chasing a cat, and barking like a dog. That’s not right. Someone has done something horribly rotten to this city.”

He turns back to me, as though I had been pointing an accusing finger directly at him. “Someone?

I stare into my own reflection on the metal surface now. I can clearly see that I’m tired and lonely, and I just want some answers. So why isn’t that clear to him? I turn to his reflection now, just as we did in the mirrored mini fridge. Just like the first night we met in The Strangest Feeling. “Templeton…what have you done?”

“I have a gift for you Bella. Do you want it?”

“You know I can’t answer without knowing what it is first.”

“Come with me.”

He turns away from my reflection and opens a door at the back of the lab. A door that I’d never noticed until now. A door that had been hidden behind a fake wall for as long as I’ve known. I take a look, and there are steps leading down to a basement I was also previously unaware of.

I’m hesitant to move even an inch, but Templeton turns back to me with an abundance of enthusiasm. “Come on. Don’t be scared.”

We walk down into the darkness, and I can hear the ordinary tweeting and squawking of birds below us. A nice change from all of the non-stop hysterical gunfire and repetitive video game soundtracks outside. He still refuses to answer any questions I have, as I inquire about the existence of that extra three feet of floor space above us. He doesn’t show the slightest acknowledgement when I ask about this basement we’re walking into, and why I had never known about it. Templeton simply flicks the lights on. This basement is at least as large as the laboratory above us. The walls are lined with cages of various sizes, but most of them are empty and hanging open as if there was a jailbreak. From the chirping, I’d guess that there are only five or six birds left down here.

Templeton leads me to the far end, towards a long table full of more random machinery and equipment. I spot some syringes and vials of mystery chemicals too. Hints of a mad scientist’s laboratory.

“Now, don’t get all freaked out like you usually do,” he warns me. But there’s no way I can promise any kind of reaction at this point. He opens the very last cage along the wall, reaches in and pulls out a Blue-and-Gold Macaw (Ara ararauna). The bird jumps from Templeton’s arms and onto the table. There’s a familiarity in its eyes as it turns to look at me.

“See?” Templeton asks.

Obviously, the first thing this bird reminds me of is Claude, but I try my best to not make it seem obvious. I’ve never been good at that though, and especially not with Templeton. “Can you tell me why this basement I never knew existed is full of bird cages for birds that probably should never have been here?”

He continues to ignore any question I have in favor of trying to impress me. “Don’t you see what I’ve done Bella? This is your bird.” The parrot spreads both of his wings apart, and flaps them quickly, excited to be free from his confinement. He squawks a little, and his white face turns pinkish, due to his excitement.

“That’s impossible,” I tell him bluntly. “For obvious reasons.”

“Is it? I know you’re more observant than that.”

I refuse to be impressed at this point, but I take a closer look at this bird no more than three feet away from me. The bird has a butterscotch-colored belly, just like Claude had. The green-feathered forehead comes back just slightly farther than its white face, at the same point as Claude’s once did. I’ve spent enough time with Claude to know that the black speckles on his face were just as this bird’s are. The jet-black beak has the same tiny grey fork-shaped line along the right side of the lower jaw. But this macaw has two wings, which is a dead giveaway that I’m still missing my best friend.

“Hello Bella!” he squawks, probably wondering why I haven’t shown any love for him yet.

“Claude?” Timidly, I touch his left wing with my hand, and the bird jumps about with glee. There can be no mistake now.

For a moment, I turn back to Templeton, questioning him with my eyes. “That’s your bird,” he boasts proudly. “Good as new.”

Claude jumps up into my arms, and I’m certain it’s him now. Suddenly, my disdain over everything I’d seen and heard since I returned to Boston two hours ago has disappeared. I’m overcome by gratitude, and relieved that things aren’t even half as horrible as I had thought them to be.

Even though they were twice as bad.

If I hadn’t gone down into the laboratory basement.

Through tears in my eyes, I look back at Templeton. “I don’t understand.”

“I grew its wing back,” he tells me matter-of-factly.

The wing is flawless. The bones are strong, the blue feathers perfect. “But that’s impossible. How in the world did you ever do this?”

“There’s always a possibility for everything. That’s what science is all about. I used amphibian DNA. A salamander, to be exact. Salamanders generate what’s known as a blastema, a mass of cells that are capable of growing into tissue, organs or bones.”

Claude flaps his re-grown wing with enthusiasm.

“Or in this case,” he continues, “a bird’s wing.”

I have to hand it to him; he’s got a way of making everything seem possible. As ridiculous as that explanation sounds, somehow Templeton does make it seem plausible. And the evidence is right in front of me.

If I had never believed a single word he’d said to me, I wouldn’t have believed that.

But I did.

If only Claude had stayed missing.

“But…how? How did you even know where to start?”

“By now Bella, you should realize that you don’t know everything there is to know about Templeton Rate.”

I hold Claude up with both hands, as high as I can. “So, can he fly then?”

“That wing only grew back two days ago. There are still a few tests that should be run, so I’d let it rest for a while if I were you.”

“Do you hear that Claude? You’re back to normal again! One hundred percent!”

“Yeah, it can even count to eight now too.”

“What?” This story just keeps getting better and better.

Or is it getting worse and worse?

“That’s right. Just watch.” Templeton reaches into his coat pocket and takes out a pack of cigarettes. Opening the package, he counts some cigarettes, and holds them out before Claude in the palm of his hand. “How many?” he asks.

And Claude says it. “Eight.” It’s true. “One two three four five six seven eight.” Claude counts them all, and he doesn’t skip any numbers at all.

I look back at Templeton, a smirk on that smug face of his. “I’d give it one for a treat, but as you know, these things can be quite addictive.” He puts seven back in his pocket, and lights up the remaining one. He doesn’t care at all whether we’re indoors, or if these birds will be breathing in second-hand smoke. “I did this for you, you know?”

“I don’t know what to say.” What I want to say is that I love him for doing something like this, even if the entire idea scares the pancakes out of me. But I know better than to fall into that trap again, don’t I? “So he never jumped from my window?”

“No.”

“But how did—”

“Humphries took the bird, and brought it here.” I don’t know what bothers me more. The fact that Jerry Humphries was actually in my apartment, or that Templeton keeps referring to Claude as an ‘it.’ I remember seeing the ugly brown car outside in the parking lot when I came in here this morning. “Is Humphries here right now?”

“No.”

“But he was here, wasn’t he? I saw his car outside.”

“Don’t you see Isabella? There’s more to this than all of that. Humphries is only doing what he thinks is best. But he doesn’t really understand.” Templeton reiterates what he said a few minutes ago, in regards to the structure upstairs: “He’s nothing more than a tool. A tool for this new age we’re entering.”

The glorious age of Templeton Rate.

My mind flashes back to our talk in the Salem cemetery. I can’t bring myself to question his intentions, but he knows exactly what I’m thinking anyway.

“There’s more at stake here than you realize Bella. Finding Jerry Humphries is not going to solve any of your problems. Finding who killed that girl is not going to make things any easier during what’s about to come.”

“I thought you said Professor Nickwelter killed her?”

“None of that matters. We’re all just a means to an end. That’s all any of us ever were.”

I hate it when he talks like this.

“I told you before; there’s a difference between having the right answer and knowing the truth.”

“Well, tell me the truth then. Just once. I think I deserve that much.”

Templeton takes one long drag of his cigarette, and hands it to me. I take it from him, and I watch the paper shaft as it burns between my fingers. I want it so badly, but I know I shouldn’t.

“You’ll find the truth in that book you’ve got.”

“What book?”

“The journal that you stole. The one that’s in your pocket.”

I run my hand across the outside of my coat pocket, and I can feel the journal underneath. He doesn’t make any indication that I should hand it back to him. He doesn’t tell me that it’s not mine. It’s as though he wants me to keep it. As if he’s challenging me to take another look inside of it. And I want to look inside, but I know I shouldn’t.

“But don’t tell me you deserve anything Isabella. After all, you’re the one that dumped me, remember?”

I can’t help wanting Templeton still, even though I know I shouldn’t.

He turns away from me and walks back up the stairs. “Stay here,” he tells me. “I’ll be right back.” I watch as his feet disappear from sight.

And I wait. Claude and I both wait for ten minutes. Just like that first night, at The Strangest Feeling. I smoke the rest of the cigarette, now ignorant of the second-hand smoke myself.

And just like that first night, Templeton doesn’t return.

Ten minutes later, I bring Claude upstairs with me. But Templeton’s nowhere to be found. He’s gone. He’s done it to me again. And the box of old journals is not here anymore either.

I begin to wonder if my lack of sleep has led me to imagine any of this.

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

I turn off all of the lights and close the laboratory. With Claude under my arm, I make my way back outside to the parking lot. Jerry Humphries’ car is gone now. In the entire lot, only my car remains. All alone under the only light that has burned out.

I hear what sounds like a Black Vulture (Coragyps atratus) throwing up, but it could just be the memory of when I tossed my wastepaper basket in the parking lot dumpster. I hear a frog croaking, and I’m not sure whether it’s actually a frog, or a perfect imitation from Peach-Faced Lovebird (Agapornis roseicollis). It might just be the thought of Templeton’s change purse coming to life at the end of the bed.

The sun is rising now, but all I want to do is sleep. I could either lay in the back of my car or just fall down into a snow bank right here in the parking lot. But I hear the exact sound my alarm clock makes, coming from some nearby bushes. It’s the one sound that won’t let me fall asleep.

I get into my car, and place Claude beside me on the passenger’s seat. He counts the number of European Magpies (Pica pica) that land on the hood of my car. “Eight,” he says. “One two three four five six seven eight.”

An old folk rhyme comes to mind, as I recall the supernatural powers magpies have been considered to possess. Depending on the number that one encounters, it was suggested that magpies could predict the future, and bring either good or bad luck:

One for sorrow, two for mirth,

Three for a funeral, four for a birth,

Five for silver, six for gold,

Seven for a secret not to be told,

Eight for heaven, nine for hell,

And ten for the devil’s own sel’

I feel a tiny sense of relief from the eight magpies, but there’s a pretty good chance that I’m simply finding any excuse I can to remain calm at this point.

“One two three four five six seven eight,” he repeats again. A part of me wonders just how Templeton Rate ever managed to teach Claude how to count the number eight when I never could, while another part of me simply worries that the novelty has already worn off.

I take the journal out of my pocket and inspect it a little closer now. A couple of pages in, I find one of the answers I was looking for. There’s a name at the bottom of the page, scribbled in charcoal: N. HATCH

Nelson Hatch? It seems impossible. Like fourteen seconds for a chicken.

Nelson Hatch. Founder of Hawthorne University. Died in 1974. His house in Salem burned to the ground ten days ago. And now I find a whole box full of his journals in one of the school’s laboratories. The very same laboratory in which students are preparing for what, exactly? The end of the world? The glorious age of Templeton Rate?

Did Templeton steal these books the night we were in Salem? I remember seeing a group of kids prowling around those old heritage homes as we sat in the cemetery. He told me he took a toque out from my trunk, but he could just as easily have been putting something else inside of it.

Claude and I both turn to one another for a moment.

I flip through the book in an effort to find the truth, as Templeton promised I would. But there really isn’t anything that makes much sense to me here. There are pages and pages of scribbling. It’s mostly about bird anatomy, and from the parts that I can make out, it all seems pretty standard and accurate.

But some of the science goes beyond anything I’ve studied. There are formulas after calculations after charts after detailed diagrams. I start to wonder that if this were merely one journal from an entire box-full, what would they all add up to?

A quarter of the way through, the sketches of birds become sketches of different animals altogether. Mice. Rabbits. Frogs. Salamanders. There are more complicated calculations, but they don’t make any more sense than the rest before them did, if they’re even supposed to.

I skip past much of it, and when I turn a page about three-quarters of the way through it hits me. There’s a drawing of pig with large feathered wings protruding from its shoulder blades. It’s extremely meticulous. This isn’t just some child’s imaginative fancy. This isn’t a doodle Nelson Hatch drew while sitting on the toilet or talking on the phone to his mother. There is an exact science to this drawing and the accompanying calculations. But it’s still incomplete.

He was actually going to make it work, wasn’t he?

If pigs really could fly, would everyone finally be satisfied?

If Nelson Hatch’s calculations were correct, would the world be content?

The magpies take off as soon as I start the engine, and Claude counts them again, not distracted at all by the air horn sounds they make in the distance.

There isn’t so much as a police car on the road as I drive back to my apartment. These Bostonians are really taking things seriously, aren’t they? Aside from being incredibly annoying, I know that these birds outside don’t pose any real danger to anybody, but I suppose everyone’s seen The Birds one too many times.

I spot ten or twelve Great Wandering Albatrosses (Diomedea exulans) flying high above the city. They glide like magic, rarely having to flap their long, slender wings. They look almost like crosses sailing through the sky. If I was a religious person, I might think of them as a good sign.

I have to slow down as four Capercaillies (Tetrao urogallus) cross my path along Parker Street. The capercaillie is the world’s largest grouse, hailing from Scotland, and it feeds on a diet consisting mostly of pine needles. My stomach grumbles, letting me know I haven’t eaten anything for some time now. Although I wouldn’t dream of eating these birds, my education reminds me that its diet will sometimes make its flesh taste like turpentine anyway.

There are two giant Ostriches (Struthio camelus) in a state of confusion along the subway tracks that run down the middle of Huntington Avenue. I’m not sure how they got behind that metal fence separating the tracks from the road, but the ostrich has never been known for being the smartest of species; even its eye is bigger than its brain. They stare at me as I drive by, looking for help. But I have neither the time nor the patience to help these unfortunate animals out at this moment. I can still hear their frightened hissing and drumming sounds behind me as I continue east towards Back Bay.

Just before I turn north on Exeter, I notice a Brown Kiwi (Apteryx mantelli) rummaging through a small garden along the sidewalk. The kiwi’s nostrils are positioned at the very tip of their long bills, and they hunt by smell. It moves like a blind man, tapping its bill along the ground as it hunts for food.

At this time of the morning on any other day, the alley behind my building would smell almost entirely like coffee. Just thinking about it now makes me want a cup, but the coffee shop is closed. Just like everything else in this city.

Ring-Billed Gulls (Larus delawarensis) litter the entirety of Public Alley 434, scuttling around in the snow, and hiding under cars and dumpsters. They aren’t making any noise other than their familiar shrills. No fire trucks blaring. No nails scratching on chalkboards. No farting. I have to drive so slow that my car crunches through the snow and crawls along at an emu’s pace in order to avoid them. I wonder if these are the same gulls I normally see at the top of the Prudential Tower every morning? Has their accustomed home been taken over by some invading species? Or maybe they’ve simply come here to check up on me? I’d like to think that somebody around here still cares.

I hope there are still some cigarettes left inside my suitcase upstairs because I’m going to need them to calm my nerves.

I take Claude from the car, and we go upstairs. I place him back in his cage and I make sure the window is closed tight. The lock on the cage is still broken, so I try my best to secure it with a twist-tie. I know he could chomp through this plastic-covered wire in seconds, but it’ll have to do for now. At least he seems happy to be home.

The lyrebird on the opposing rooftop is still taking shots at my window. That mockingbird is still somewhere nearby, still at it with the jackhammer. The same myna bird car alarms continue to resound outside.

The suitcase on my couch does hold one more cigarette, tucked into one of my right socks, and I light it up with the pink plastic lighter that was tucked into the left one. If the smoke detectors in my place were actually working, they would probably go unnoticed at this point anyway due to the ruckus. I toss the journal onto the coffee table and I change out of my two-day-old clothes. From my suitcase, I remove a clean tank top, one t-shirt from my endangered species series (this one featuring the Christmas Island Frigatebird (Fregata andrewsi) on it), my Hawthorne University sweatshirt, my favorite pair of oversized flannel sleep pants and my fuzzy King Penguin (Aptenodytes patagonicus) socks. I know I must look horrible, but I’m more than certain that I feel even worse.

Collapsing onto the couch and staring at the ceiling, I watch as the smoke from the cigarette begins to take form. My eyes water from being awake for so long now, and it’s becoming harder to sustain any focus on reality. I want to close my eyes, maybe for good this time, but I’m too afraid. The swirling smoke warns me that as much as I’m reeling from these nightmares of the past few days, they probably pale in comparison to whatever I might find waiting for me in my dreams.

But I’m so tired. Since I woke up in my bed in Ville Constance Sunday morning, I’ve been back to Doneau High, and I’ve sat on the yellow electrical box that I’ve tried so hard to forget. I’ve spoken with Cindey Fellowes, and lied to her about how much she ever meant to me. I’ve denied the fact that I had ever once thought about The Question. I’ve stared into the glossy photographed eyes of her son and felt sorry for everyone that boy would ever meet. I’ve seen a Laughing Kookaburra (Dacelo novaeguineae) that bleated like a sheep. I’ve seen a Chestnut-Vented Nuthatch (Sitta nagaensis) that brayed like a donkey. I’ve seen an African Grey Parrot (Psittacus erithacus) that cussed at me in Chinese and one that cursed at me with a British accent. I’ve held a journal in my hands that was handwritten by Nelson Hatch. I’ve discovered his secrets. I’ve seen my best friend come back to life. I’ve seen Templeton Rate, and he’s scared me more than any nightmare ever could.

All I wanted to do was go to sleep, and now I can’t wake up.

My dreams are just as horrible as I imagined they would be, maybe even worse. Templeton laughs at me in my dreams. He gives the world a gift, but denies me of it. Men are turning into birds. Women are doing the same. They’re sitting at the counter at The Strangest Feeling, as Kitty refills their coffee. They dip their beaks into the coffee cups like those glass drinking birds with the top hats. They’re running behind the hedge of St. Francis Elementary School. They’re making the high school basketball team and winning championships. They’re saying happy birthday to one another. They’re jumping off the Prudential Tower and flying between the snowflakes. They’re molting, both physically and psychologically, and they’re becoming something more than they ever were. Something better. Something worse. And now they’re all laughing at me.

But their laughing slowly becomes something else. Something that sounds an awful lot like…snoring? I’m so sleep-deprived that I can’t even differentiate the ringing phones outside my window from the conspicuous nasally sounds I can hear coming from my bedroom. It takes me a few more rings before I realize what’s going on.

I stand up, a little less on edge than I should be thanks to the nicotine. The smoke still lingers around me, indicating I’d only lost consciousness for half a minute at most. The cigarette that had fallen from my hand is now burning on my floor. Sadly, it didn’t even have enough time to put me out of my misery.

I pocket the lighter in my pants and I walk cautiously through the miasmic haze of my apartment. Slowly, I peer around the door, and into the bedroom.

I don’t know why, but I’m sure I was expecting to see Templeton Rate sleeping in my bed. I couldn’t be more wrong.

Professor Nickwelter?

NEXT CHAPTER

Molt – Chapter Five

My Nest Away From Nest

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If I hadn’t slept with Professor Nickwelter.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If only Templeton had returned from the washroom.

If Claude had simply asked me The Question.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes. I would.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Massachusetts teaching certificate.

And Steffen James.

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

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

“About what exactly?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hmm?

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

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

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

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

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

Then why the hell did you fuck me?

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

NEXT CHAPTER

Molt – Chapter Three

The Strangest Feeling

THURSDAY, OCTOBER SECOND. I remember sitting on the bus. This is a horrible place to start a story, but I suppose it’s as good a place as any other I can think of.

Boston, Massachusetts. One month ago. It’s my twenty-ninth birthday, and I’m sitting on the cold, orange plastic seat of bus #3031, probably the oldest bus that the MBTA owned. This thing seems to be running on time that had already run out. Every bump in the road causes every piece of it to shake violently. Some things shake when I’m certain they shouldn’t. I can feel parts of myself shaking that shouldn’t be. The floor seems to move independently from the rest of the bus, which certainly has to be a safety hazard. On the seat next to me is an old ragged newspaper. The date is smudged, but it appears to read ‘November 2, 1982.’ That can’t be right, can it? One of the banner ads above me has a picture of a Spine-Tailed Swift (Hirundapus caudacutus) on it, the second-fastest bird in the world. I think it’s an advertisement for an ink-jet printer, but I’m really not sure.

Professor Nickwelter and a few more of the teaching staff at Hawthorne University decided to throw an intimate birthday dinner for me, and after calling it an evening, I decided to treat myself to this spectacular bus ride. Happy birthday me.

There’s something about turning twenty-nine that seems to instantly make you feel older than thirty. I can’t explain it, but I can certainly feel it tonight.

I remember when I was a little girl, growing up in Ville Constance and dreaming of this day. Well, let me make it clear; not this day as it’s turned out to be, but this day as I thought it would be. An imaginary life. With the perfect husband and flowers beside my bed. It’s my personal opinion that until girls turn sixteen, they shouldn’t have even the slightest concept of marriage explained to them. It’s a dangerous idea to have in your head when you’re an eight-year-old girl. Like carrying around a loaded gun, not that I would have any idea what to do with it. So many dreams are forged at that age; dreams that seem realistically attainable, that it’s hard to face the inevitable and disappointing reality of it all.

So now I’m twenty-nine years old. I’m allergic to flowers and about as close to being married as I was twenty-one years ago. Actually, it seems as though I might have been closer back then, because that’s when I still had some hope. I guess you could call this my mid-life crisis, but feeling so near to the end as I do right now, my mid-life crisis must have happened around the time I was fifteen. Although, for the life of me, I can’t recall what that event must’ve been. I can only narrow it down to one disappointing day:

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

Thinking about all of this, I start to zone out. My thoughts are somewhere else entirely, but my eyes are focused squarely on the metal pole before me. I’m paying specific attention to a tiny screw in the center, attaching the pole to the seat in front of me. One of those screws with the X-shaped hole in the middle. I know that buried somewhere deep within that empty black cross lies the answers to whatever it is I’m asking myself. I’m looking, but not seeing. The mind and the eyes are so closely related, that it’s impossible to imagine just how far apart mine were at this moment. Like they were two Snow Buntings (Plectrophenax nivalis) on opposing mountain peaks. Or like the American Rhea (Rhea americana) and the African Ostrich (Struthio camelus), who so obviously shared a common ancestor, but haven’t had contact with one another since before the continents divided. The entire world is flying by me just outside that window at a steady pace of fifteen miles-an-hour. But I remain completely unaware of it.

I almost seem to be getting somewhere when my senses come crashing back together. A hand grips the pole in front of me; a little dirty, but a perfectly flawless hand nonetheless. It covers up the screw and seemingly all of the answers buried within it, and it’s enough to bring me back down to Earth.

What force could have been responsible for this near-impossible task? At the time, I had no idea who he was. And yet, even as this man would bring my feet back to the ground at that moment, he would later try to take them right off again. But I’m getting ahead of myself here. What did happen on that bus at that moment?

He’s staring right at me, and a little too obviously for my liking. I cross my legs and adjust the top button of my blouse, so as not to give this creep a free show. I try my best to focus my thoughts back to the dinner party I had escaped from.

Okay. Concentrate. It’s Thursday night. I was just downtown at Café d’Averno with the four of them; there was Professor Nickwelter, former head of the ornithology department, now my assistant at Hawthorne University; Professor James, head of genetics; Professor Claus, our zoology expert; and Jerry Humphries, who runs the school’s bird sanctuary and laboratories. I don’t know whose idea it was to invite Humphries, as no one here seems to be able to stand the despicable man. Especially myself.

We would have an unscheduled long weekend due to a small fire this morning in the university’s south laboratory. A blown fuse box I was told, but more likely it was a student horsing around. Quite a dangerous place for a fire, but I was told no serious damage was inflicted. In order to make sure the rest of the school was safe, we were given Friday off.

Café d’Averno, as far as I know, is named after a famous lake in Southern Italy, Lake Avernus. The ancient Romans considered the lake to be a gateway to Hell, and that its volcanic fumes that filled the air were deadly enough to kill every bird that flew in its vicinity. The word for Hell, Averno, literally means “a place without birds,” and maybe I’m just biased, but I personally believe this to be a correct statement.

At the center of Averno’s, there was a fountain surrounded by eight Muscovy Ducks (Cairina moschata) meticulously carved into the marble base. The French crossbred Muscovy ducks and mallards for cooking to obtain Barbary ducks, which have a milder taste. A popular belief is that Muscovy ducks had gotten their name from the musky odor of their flesh.

There’s something about birds that I find extraordinarily soothing. Whenever I’m feeling uncomfortable, or if I simply need to calm myself down, I have a habit of looking around for birds wherever I am. They’re everywhere, whether real or not. You’d be surprised if you really focused on it. Anyway, the duck carvings on the fountain were just enough to put me at ease again. That is, until I turned back to the dinner party. Or more specifically, towards Professor Nickwelter.

Nickwelter and I had a history together of which everyone here knew about, and it only served to make the meal even more uncomfortable. For me, at least. But everybody had always done their best to try not to bring up any off-handed mention of our shaky past. It’s been two years since our relationship had ended, and I’m still awkward about the entire situation.

If I hadn’t slept with Professor Nickwelter.

After hors d’oeuvres, we ordered dinner. Nickwelter, James, and Humphries all had the roasted duck, which is quite remarkable coming from three grown men who have made the studying and caring for birds into their chosen career. Professor Claus (who is affectionately known as ‘Mrs. Claus’ by the faculty and students at Hawthorne) had the tofu spinach burger with cabbage. I ordered the spaghetti with meatballs, and was met with cheers from the surrounding company. They had actually made a bet earlier as to what I would order; three of them said spaghetti. Humphries guessed pork chops. Pork chops? I’ve always hated pork chops, not that he would know that. I’m almost certain that pork chops weren’t even on the menu, but apparently he had his reasons. The pretentious twit. Although, now that I think about it, I hadn’t noticed whether or not I’ve ever eaten such an exorbitant amount of spaghetti, with meatballs or otherwise, that people would take such an active notice either.

I tried to change the subject, to talk about something other than myself. But once dinner was served, the conversation had quickly been forced back towards me, and it was definitely the figurative arrow I did not want pointing my way. It went something like this:

PROFESSOR NICKWELTER: “You look magnificent tonight Isabelle. Is that a new wristwatch? Whatever happened to the last one?”

PROFESSOR JAMES: “I hope you don’t consider yourself old for being on the brink of thirty. You’re still a spring chicken, Donhelle! By the way, do you know the origins of the term ‘spring chicken?’ Remind me to tell you later. It’s really quite an amusing anecdote.”

MRS. CLAUS: “Isabelle, why don’t you come by my place after dinner for some non-fat organic birthday cake? I have a family recipe that’s to die for.”

JERRY HUMPHRIES: “You need a ride home tonight, Bella?”

And my answer was the same for all of them:

ME: “I think the spaghetti was bad. Excuse me while I go use the ladies room.”

We hadn’t been at the restaurant for any longer than an hour, and I had already made three trips to the ladies room. It seemed to be the only the place I could go to get some air. Engraved in many of the tiles on the bathroom wall were images of Sandhill Cranes (Grus canadensis) standing one-legged in pools of water. When roosting, cranes will tuck one leg up under their feathers to keep it warm while standing on the other. In the Middle Ages, it was believed that a sentry crane held a stone within its hidden foot, and would drop it if he fell asleep or if its attention was diverted, thereby waking its companions. In heraldry, a crane is often shown holding a stone, as a reminder of alertness.

If only I had been paying attention that night.

To make this exhaustingly boring story just a bit shorter, I decided to simply leave Café d’Averno early. I honestly don’t know if spaghetti has the capability of going bad, but they let me go on my own without too much of a struggle, even though I had gotten a lift to the restaurant with Mrs. Claus. Humphries still had the ride home offer on the table, and I still declined. That smug little weasel. For some reason, the idea of riding public transit seemed to appeal to me much more tonight than it ever had before in my life.

If I hadn’t decided to take the bus home.

Had all the talk of me being another year older, another year closer to thirty, been getting to me? Maybe a little bit. The truth is, I’ve never dealt with change very well. I am from Ville Constance, after all. The Constant City. I know I’m getting older, we all are with every passing second, but I guess I’ve felt as though things never seem to change for me as much as I think they should. Do I avoid change because I’m really just itching to turn it around? Do I keep my life stagnant because I’m aching to do something completely unexpected? Was I staring so intensely into the void of that screw in front of me because I’m really just afraid to be a part of the changing world around me? Is the world changing without me?

I turn back to this man on the bus, his gaze still upon me. A part of me wonders if he’d ever taken his eyes off me at all, while another part of me wonders whether or not I actually wanted him to. He nods his head towards me, and I tighten up defensively once again. The level of discomfort I’m feeling at this precise moment is completely unexplainable. What’s this guy staring at me for anyway? And why me? Again, I adjust my blouse and turn my body away from him. In my head, I count down from ten before looking back up…

Three…Two…One…Zero.

And there he is.

“Can I help you?” I ask abruptly, defiantly. As soon as the words leave my lips, I worry that maybe I shouldn’t have said anything at all. My mother always told me never to talk to strangers, but when exactly comes the point in one’s life that Mom’s advice can be disregarded? When can I make my own decisions without having to still hear her voice nattering away inside my head?

“Are you offering your help,” he begins calmly, and then blinks in what seems like slow motion, “or do I have to beg you for it?” He isn’t cracking a smile at all; he just says this matter-of-factly. As though the ambiguousness of his words can only be interpreted one way.

That’s it for me though. I pull the bus dinger as if it was a parachute’s ripcord and I I’m perilously close to hitting the ground. I get up from my seat and run across the shaky floor to the exit at the back of the bus. The driver slows to a stop and I jump off into the darkness of the city. I turn back to make sure the man didn’t follow me off the bus. He didn’t. Bus #3031 speeds off to where, just one minute ago, I thought I was going.

Taking a look around me, I discover a part of Boston that I don’t recognize. It’s dirty. It’s smelly. It’s making me uncomfortable. But I think that not knowing where I am is exactly where I want to be. Directly behind me, and nestled in between two of the vilest triple-x establishments I’ve ever seen is The Strangest Feeling, a little diner with yellow smoke-stained windows. Beneath the alternating green lights flashing from one pornography shop to the orange lights flashing from the other, The Strangest Feeling seems strangely welcoming.

So I go in.

If I hadn’t walked inside The Strangest Feeling.

Inside, it appears to be one of those retro eateries that make you feel as though you’re sitting right in the middle of the 1940’s. I sit up at the front counter on a stool with a flat plastic cushion, even worse than the seat on the bus.

I begin to take in everything behind the counter; malt vinegar bottles, pancake syrup, plastic bears filled with honey, jars and boxes stuffed with dozens of different types of tea bags and an old-fashioned pop bottle with a faded image of Marilyn Monroe on it.

The night waitress comes out from the kitchen. She pulls the menu out that’s wedged between the sugar dispenser and the ketchup bottle and she tosses it in front of me. But before I can open the oversized laminated menu she speaks up.

“What’ll it be sweetheart?” she asks me, instantly reminding me of my mother. She smacks her bubble gum as though she really doesn’t care what my answer will be.

I’m almost too overwhelmed by the sight of this girl to give an immediate response. Her nametag says ‘Kitty’ for one thing, and her lips are this sort of neon green color. The kind of color that should strictly be reserved for tacky electric signs on steak houses. Or maybe they were just reflecting the flashing green porno shop signs outside. Feeling pressured to make some kind of decision, I simply ask, “What’s your special?”

“Tonight’s special is pea soup with our homemade cheese bread.” She smacks her lips a couple more times before finishing her response. “I highly recommend it.”

I’m not really full from my earlier meal at Averno’s. Since my dinner guests had never stopped bombarding me with ridiculous questions, I didn’t get the chance to eat my meal while it was still hot. It’s really not fair that there were four mouths shooting off questions and only one mouth left to answer them. They all took turns talking and eating, while I was too polite to speak with my mouth full, so I opted to not even try.

“How bad could it be then?” I ask, mostly to myself.

She answers anyway. “No worse than tomorrow’s special, I suppose” she says with a smirk. “Is that all then?”

Behind the counter I spot a varied selection of tiny cereal boxes, three ceramic dancing Hawaiian hula girls with ukuleles, and a large coffee maker with five pots of coffee brewing. I don’t know if it’s because there are five full pots of coffee and I’m the only customer in here, but I think about having some. I’ve never had a cup of coffee in my life before; just the thought of it has never appealed to me. I think it’s partly because my father once told me that caffeine was a drug, and I’d be good to stay away from drugs. I take a moment to consider how much of a lame-o I must be, and then I ask Kitty for a cup of coffee.

“You sure about that?” she asks, as if seeing right through me.

“Maybe just a tea then,” I say, taking it back. But I the part of me that was looking for a change tonight is what stops Kitty before she can walk away. “No. Sorry,” I say, the words stumbling out of my mouth. “I think I will have that cup of coffee.” It’s subtle, but I know she’s rolling her eyes at me a little.

If I hadn’t asked for that one cup of coffee.

“Thanks,” I confirm.

“You got it.” She writes my order down in her head, and saunters back into the kitchen. I slide the menu back into its resting place and consider just how bad tomorrow’s special might be. I also wonder when neon green lipstick was ever in style.

I take notice of the large Jones Cola machine, a breadbox that may or may not contain bread, a coffee bean grinder and an old-fashioned metal fan with a wire grate covering the blade. An unplugged cord is loosely tied around the base. Above the order window to the kitchen are about a dozen black and white photographs, which appear to be both employees and patrons of The Strangest Feeling. On one of the walls there is a poorly painted mural of a sunrise; the colors are cracked and bubbled, showing years of neglect. On the ceiling are matching painted clouds.

But in this entire diner, I can’t seem to find a single image of a bird anywhere. It makes me feel a little uneasy; as though I’m way too far out of my element.

It really is the strangest feeling.

An early October Boston chill creeps inside the diner. I almost reach for the newspaper down the counter, but then I remember how tired I am of reading about bad news. And I worry that the paper could potentially have the same date as the one I saw on the bus earlier.

Kitty comes back out and pours some coffee from one of the pots into a generous-sized ceramic mug. She places the mug and a spoon onto a tiny plate in front of me. The spoon has a design on the end of it that I can’t make out. I imagine that if I held it at just the right angle under the diner’s dim lights, it might be charitable enough to resemble an African Penguin (Spheniscus demersus). Maybe I’m trying too hard to look for a comforting sign, but maybe the unknown is better right now. Maybe I need to feel out of my element tonight.

If I hadn’t been out of my element.

Kitty tosses some plastic cups of cream onto the table, smacking her gum all the while. I can smell that pink, sugary flavor with every bite. If smell could be described as pink, this was it.

I try my best to seem as though I belong in this caffeine-induced society. Tearing the lids off of two cups of cream (actually, it’s more like I was picking away at it until I could get a grip of the slippery paper seal with my teeth, then pulling slowly enough so as not to spill it all over myself), I pour it in with a dash of sugar. That’s right, a dash. It sounds like the correct amount. I think from a stranger’s perspective, I must appear pretty experienced for someone who’s never had a cup of coffee in her life.

I take a sip.

And it’s really not very good. I pour in what must be the equivalent of three or four packs of sugar into my cup.

Another tentative sip.

It’s tolerable now. Who knows, maybe it’ll grow on me by the end of the night?

Five minutes later, I’m hoping the pea soup and cheese bread might grow on me as well. I’m also hoping that there really are peas in here somewhere, because I can’t tell for sure. At least the bread is decent enough, though I can’t seem to decipher the crust from the actual bread. There are a few reasons running through my head as to why this diner is called The Strangest Feeling. Still, I feel more content here all by myself than I did at Café d’Averno earlier tonight with my incessant co-workers. And I certainly feel safer than I did on the bus.

That is, until ringing bells indicate the door to The Strangest Feeling has swung open. A lone man enters, and he sits right beside me at the counter, even though there are plenty of other empty seats in here.

“What can I get you, sugar?” Kitty asks him, smacking her bubble gum between those crayon-colored lips.

I catch his reflection in the mirrored mini fridge behind the counter. It’s the same guy from the bus; the one I specifically came in here to avoid. How the fudge did he follow me in here so quickly? I made sure he didn’t get off the bus when I did. I can see his reflection motion towards mine as he replies to the waitress, “I’ll have what she’s having.”

“And a coffee?” she asks.

In the reflection, I see him glance down into my coffee cup to check its contents. “Yep.”

Kitty walks off, and I continue to stare at him from the mini fridge. Before I can decide whether sitting here any longer is still a good idea, his eyes turn to mine in the glass. That same smile from the bus is still smeared across his face. “You recommend the pea soup and cheese bread?” he calmly asks my mirror image.

What do I say now? Panic mode has set in, and yet I feel as though it’s far too late to do anything rational. “Not really,” I say to him. “I just wanted to try something new tonight.”

If I hadn’t answered him.

Our reflections don’t turn away from each other, and I get a much better look at his features now. Beautiful brown eyes beneath a thick, messy head of hair. A strong jaw and that overly confident smile breaking through cracked lips. His skin has a certain hardness to it; well-tanned, but with just the faintest trace of dirt or soot on his face. Probably from the same source as the grime on his knuckles I captured earlier.

“You get that feeling often?” he asks, reaching into his coat to scratch his armpit. “That you want to try something new?”

“To tell the truth, I get that feeling all the time,” I say to him. “But tonight’s the first time that I’ve ever acted on it.”

He peers into the kitchen now, as though he’s already growing impatient for his meal. With his elbows, he pushes himself up to take a better look. He’s not paying attention to me, but still asks, “Is that a French accent?”

“Uh…yeah.” I say. “French-Canadian.”

With a quick motion, he reaches over the counter and grabs a spoon from behind the bar. I don’t know why he does it, but he sits right down again and turns back to face my reflection. “What’s that?” he asks, as if just realizing I had answered him.

“I said I’m French-Canadian.”

“Is there such a thing?”

I can’t tell if he’s joking or not. He’s not blinking. He simply stares through the mini-fridge, and into my eyes like he’s waiting for me to go on. He rattles the spoon between his teeth.

Before I can utter another word, Kitty makes her timely return. She sets down an empty cup, pours some coffee for him and then refills mine. She’s still smacking her gum as she tosses some more plastic cups of cream onto the countertop.

I pour some more cream and sugar into my coffee. From the mini-fridge I notice this man next to me doing the same. Mimicking exactly how I prepare my cup of coffee. How can he do that? Didn’t I conceive of these particular measurements myself just now? Do I not reserve the right to be offended by someone else’s identical coffee-preparing preferences? I turn to him, and I force the words out, “I can see what you’re doing.”

“Hmmm?” he replies innocently, without even a hint of innocence.

“You follow me in here, you sit right beside me and you order the same thing I do. And now you’re putting the exact same amount of cream and sugar in your coffee as me.”

“Strangest coincidence, isn’t it?”

I pick up my spoon, and stir the coffee around. He does the same. Our metal spoons clinking with the rims of our ceramic cups in perfect harmony. He places his spoon back down, just as I do.

Upon closer inspection, I notice the t-shirt he’s wearing underneath his buttoned-up weathered coat has an image ironed on the front. It appears to be the feathery cap a Brown-Headed Nuthatch (Sitta pusilla). At least, that’s what it looks like from this angle. It’s enough to make me smile a little, whether I mean to or not.

He holds out his hand. “My name’s Templeton Rate.”

I don’t move an inch. Templeton Rate, I think. Sounds made up to me.

“I know it sounds made up, but that’s really my name,” he says, as if taking the words right out of my head. Actually, the words were still in my head, so I guess it was more like he got in, made a xerox copy of my words, and then got back out again before saying it. Well, whatever. You get the idea. Either way, I wasn’t really sure just what to make of the situation I’d now found myself in. It was all very strange. Although I think I was finding the slightest bit of comfort from the head of the nuthatch peeking out from Templeton Rate’s coat.

I know he can smell my fear, and he presses on. “Are you going to get into the habit of trying new things?” he asks. “Because it’s really not such a bad habit to have, you know.”

Maybe he was right. Maybe this was going to be a new habit for me. Maybe it should be. That change in my life that I always seemed to avoid for fear of ending up somewhere I didn’t want to be? Maybe this was it. Who am I kidding? Of course this was it.

It was at that precise moment I made the mistake; the one mistake that led this story to end it the way it does. I could’ve gotten up right then and there, but like a fool I stayed.

If I hadn’t had that first cup of coffee; if I hadn’t entered The Strangest Feeling; if I hadn’t gotten on that bus; if I hadn’t lied to my co-workers about the spaghetti; if I hadn’t been cut from the Doneau High basketball team.

That’s right Mrs. Wyatt; this is all your fault.

Templeton repeats his last question, since it probably seems as though I didn’t hear him. “I said trying new things is really not such a bad habit to have, is it?”

“I don’t know,” I start. “The bread’s a little stale. And the soup is watery.”

That’s what I chose say to him. I just couldn’t leave well enough alone. Those were the words that sealed my fate, and the fate of the whole city. Maybe even the world. That’s not being too dramatic, is it?

“I’m not going to lie to you,” is what he says back to me. “I’m much better than stale bread and watery soup.”

And I believed him. Whoops. Sorry world.

If I hadn’t believed a word he said.

His hand is still held out in front of me, so I lift mine into his. It’s the warmest hand I think I’ve ever felt. In fact, it’s so warm that I have no problem telling him whatever it is he wants to know. “Isabelle,” I say to him.

“That’s a little bit better…” he replies, not letting go of my hand.

Whatever he wants at all. “Isabelle Donhelle.”

“Ah. Perfect.” He pauses for a moment, thinking about this. “You know, that name sounds more made up than mine. Are you sure you’re telling me the entire truth?”

“Of course I am,” I say defensively.

“Really?”

“Why wouldn’t I be?”

If I hadn’t told him the truth.

He stares back into my eyes, much deeper than I’m comfortable with. It feels like he knows I’m lying, even though I know I’m not. “That’s funny…” he starts, as he raises the cup to his mouth. He takes a loud slurp. It’s almost loud enough that one would assume he’s doing it intentionally, for whatever reason men do anything. But it’s just loud enough that I can tell he simply has no manners. Basically, he’s a pig. Although, the fool that I am, I chalk it up to poor parental guidance, since he seems to be trying his best to be a gentleman.

He swallows the coffee, but before he can finish what it was he had started to say, he squirms uncontrollably in his seat, as though he just had a sip of flat root beer. He turns back to me accusingly, “Fuck,” he says. “Do you really drink coffee with this much sugar in it?”

“Actually, that’s something new for me too. I guess I’m really spreading my wings today, aren’t I?”

“Of course you are.” He places his coffee cup back down in front of him, but he continues to feel the handle with his fingers. “But you’d better be careful when spreading your wings that you have a safe place to land.”

I look down to the floor, but I can’t tell if I’m looking for a safe place, or if I’m looking for the right thing to say instead.

It doesn’t matter though, as the moment is ruined anyway. Templeton’s hand tips his coffee cup over. Steaming, sugary coffee spills onto the countertop and drips down onto the checkerboard-tiled floor. I can’t tell for certain if this was intentional or not, since he doesn’t seem the least bit surprised or embarrassed. The waitress runs over to clean it up. I tell her “sorry,” since Templeton clearly isn’t going to. In fact, he doesn’t even acknowledge her. Again, I blame this on an unfortunate upbringing. She says it’s all right and asks Templeton if he wants a refill, but he continues to ignore her, keeping his attention focused entirely on me.

“So, are you new in town? I haven’t seen you around Boston before, Isabelle Donhelle.”

I try my best to forget about the coffee too. “It’s a big city, Templeton Rate.”

“Hey, I’m from Schenectady. I know big cities. This is nothing.”

Schenectady? I don’t know whether to laugh or just agree with him. He sure seems serious. Maybe I’m just thinking of another Schenectady. “And I’m always on the lookout for cute French girls in greasy diners, so I know you’re definitely new around here.”

“The truth is that I really don’t get out much.”

The waitress comes back with Templeton’s soup, bread and a fresh cup of coffee.

“So tell me something,” he says to me, and then waits for a response. Although I’m not quite sure what it is he’s looking for.

“Pardon me?” I ask.

He reaches for the salt and pepper, and shakes some into the hot pea soup as he clarifies. “I want to know something about you that I couldn’t have pieced together just by sitting here at this counter for the last ten minutes. Like what do you do for a living? Have you ever mixed your whites with your colors? When I say French impressionist, do you think painter or comedian? Do you have a jealous boyfriend? Have you ever seen the sun set from underwater?”

“I can answer the first one for you.”

“Go ahead.”

“I’m a teacher. Well, professor actually.”

“And the rest?”

“I either have no idea what you’re talking about, or it’s simply none of your business.”

“Do you sleep naked?”

Again, I’m not sure whether he’s serious or joking, so I don’t answer.

He takes a package of saltine crackers, crushes it inside his palm, and sprinkles the contents into his soup. “I guess that falls under the ‘none of my business’ category, right?”

“That’s right.”

“Well, teacher is a good start,” he says, satisfied for now with the amount of information that I’ve awarded him with. “I’m a student. But I also work part-time as a doorman.”

“I see. What is it that you study exactly?”

He takes some more packages of saltines from the counter, and crushes them in his hand too. “I guess that depends on what it is you’re teaching.”

“It does, does it? I don’t think you’d ever find your way into my class Templeton. You kind of need to know something first.”

Pouring more cracker dust into his soup, he tries his best to impress me. “I know that the human heart creates enough pressure to shoot blood thirty feet. I know the circumference of the Earth would never be exactly the same, no matter how many times you measure it. I know why it is that vertical stripes look better on fat people than they do on skinny people. What makes you think I don’t have what it takes?” There’s a mountain of crumbled crackers on his soup now.

“It’s just that you seem like the type of guy that copies the answers from the person next to you is all.”

“I don’t copy answers. There’s no need to copy anything when there aren’t any right answers in the first place.”

“For nothing at all? What about your vertical stripe paradox?”

“Listen to me Isabella. The amount of things in this world that we don’t know so greatly outnumbers the things we do, that I don’t think any ‘answer’ can ever truly be one-hundred percent correct. Does that make any sense to you?”

“I don’t know if you’ve been paying attention, but my name’s Isabelle. Not Isabella.”

He ignores me completely, and takes a big bite out of the bread. Again, this is kind of bite that only a lack of proper parental supervision can be held responsible for. “There’s a difference between having the right answer and knowing the truth.” The Templeton Rate Guide to Etiquette obviously doesn’t say anything about talking with a mouth full of food.

“That’s profound. I don’t know how you could ever top that.” I don’t mean to sound like I’m challenging him, but that’s how it comes out.

He forces the bread down his throat without much gratification. “Fuck. This cheese bread really is terrible. I’ve got to take a shit.” Templeton gets up to use the bathroom, but turns back to me before exiting. “I want to buy you another cup of coffee though. What do you say?”

What should I say? For too long I’ve avoided situations just like this when maybe I should’ve taken the chance instead.

He leans in closer to me, almost closer than what I’m comfortable with. I can see a tiny piece of bread still lodged between his two front teeth. “Look at you. I can tell you’re wanting to break out,” he says, coming a little closer. I can smell the hint of cheese and coffee on his breath. “You’re itching to do something completely unexpected, aren’t you? You want to become someone you’ve never had the chance to be before. And you want me to help you get there, don’t you?” Even closer now. There’s a disregarded nose hair that’s grown longer than the rest, and I can see it fanning back and forth with his every breath. “What do you say Isabella?” His faults are just obvious enough that I can tell he’s the most realistic person I’ve ever met. And there’s the familiar little brown-headed nuthatch poking its head out from under Templeton’s coat. How can I possibly resist all of this tonight?

So I don’t. “Isabelle,” is what I say, correcting him once again.

He doesn’t say anything else; he just turns and walks towards the washrooms. As he exits, I replay the whole encounter in my mind. I still wonder how it is that he managed to follow me here, and I think that I’ll ask him as soon as he comes back.

What does Templeton Rate want from me? And what do I want from him? I’m not entirely sure, but I’m hoping to figure that out too when he returns.

Then a feeling comes over me, one that I haven’t felt for probably two years, since I accepted the teaching position at Hawthorne. It’s the feeling of anticipation. I finish off my meal, and discover that even the bread and soup are not so bad now. Why is that? Why is it that when you sense a particular feeling in your heart, all of your other senses take a temporary vacation?

If I hadn’t remained at that counter, waiting for him to return.

I hear the men’s room door as it swings open, but I don’t look. I wait for Templeton to sit back down beside me so I can ask him everything I need to right away. So I can get all of these thoughts out of my head that have been accumulating since he left. But it’s not Templeton who exits from the bathroom. Another man, a fat man who must have come into the diner when I was fumbling with my emotions, stumbles by me and breaks my train of thought. The stench of men’s room is all over him, and I pray that my pseudo-date’s smell is not so similar when he comes back.

If he comes back. It’s been ten minutes now, and the steam from our coffee has vanished. It’s cold, but I swallow the rest of mine with determination. I wonder if maybe I did put too much sugar in my cup. The soggy mess of crackers sinks slowly into Templeton’s untouched soup.

It’s after twenty minutes that I figure I’d better go and investigate his whereabouts. I rap my hand on the men’s room door, and call out to him. “Templeton?”

But there’s no answer.

I try again with the same result: no answer. So I creak the door open a little and take a peek inside, but I don’t see anything apart from a tiled wall in front of me. So I carefully take a step in. Around the corner are two urinals against the wall. I’ve heard the horror stories, and seen them in movies before, but I’ve honestly never seen a urinal in person until this moment. And trust me, if you’ve never seen one either, don’t go out of your way to fill that void. I won’t go into too much detail, but I’m sure you could stuff a pillow with all of the hairs in there. They were everywhere: on the wall, on the floor, stuck to the inside, floating in the puddle of water, and all over the little white puck-thing covering the drain. Black hairs. Brown hairs. Red hairs. Yellow hairs. All of them thick and curly. I know I wanted a change in my life, but right now this might be going a little too far outside of my comfort zone. I take a step back, and the urinal flushes automatically, which is the lone bright spot of my visit to the men’s room; I wouldn’t want to have to flush this thing manually either.

The two stalls behind me are closed. I give each one a tap with the back of my hand, even though I really should be leaving at this point. “Templeton? Are you in there?”

Still no reply.

I open the first door, and I almost fall back from the stink that wafts towards me. It smells an awful lot like that fat man who walked out of here ten minutes ago. And it’s also obvious that the toilets in this washroom aren’t self-flushing like the urinals. If I still felt any fear from the presence of Templeton Rate, it pales in comparison to my discoveries in here. Some foul graffiti is written and carved into the side of the stall. I see an etching of what seems to be a Canadian Goose (Branta canadensis) sodomizing some poor cartoon man, and it offends and confuses me even beyond the scientific implausibility of it all.

If this bathroom had been telling this story, it would be scratched inside the stall with accompanying pictures.

I reluctantly try the next stall over, and although Templeton is not in there either, I am relieved to find that it’s relatively clean.

I turn to face the mirror for a moment, before enough of my strength returns that I can get out of here. There’s a little white sticker on the bottom corner of the mirror that reads:

 Our Restrooms Have Been Professionally Sanitized

By Sani-Squad For Your Health And Well-Being.

There’s a toll-free number in the corner for this Sani-Squad, and I almost feel like jotting it down so I can call to report a missing employee, since he obviously hasn’t been anywhere around these parts for some time now. However, getting out of this washroom as fast as I can and breathing in the air of that dirty diner is of much greater importance to me right now than logging a complaint to some poorly-run sanitation company.

I come back out hoping to find Templeton waiting for me at the counter. Maybe we somehow missed one another in the bathroom? Maybe he was using the women’s washroom? Maybe he went out to pee in the alley rather than use that filth-infested men’s room? I wouldn’t blame him one bit. But the only thing waiting for me is my bill. And his. And two complementary pieces of sugary pink gum.

I have no idea why I paid for Templeton’s meal as well as mine, and I have even less of a clue as to why I bothered taking the gum with me when I left The Strangest Feeling.

NEXT CHAPTER

Molt

Molt

MOLT follows ISABELLE DONHELLE, an ornithology professor living in Boston. The story is told through the first-person narrative, as Isabelle explores her own past, questioning why she has always been afraid of change, and just how she’s come to find herself falling for a troubled student of hers. But TEMPLETON RATE is not really a student at Hawthorne University and the truth is that he has much bigger plans for Isabelle than she could ever suspect.

For reasons that are not quite selfish and not entirely altruistic, Templeton dreams of changing the world. As the mystery unravels, Isabelle will be faced with such obstacles as an affair with a co-worker, a house fire in Salem, an impromptu trip to Quebec, strange laboratory experiments, a murder investigation and hundreds of rare and exotic birds taking over the streets of Massachusetts before finally facing Templeton in a chilling finale on the rooftop of Boston’s Prudential Tower. And once there, Isabelle will finally realize that change, whether desired or not, is always more complicated after the fact.

Readers will enjoy a clever mix of suspense, dark humor and science, and will cheer for Isabelle as she falls just far enough to learn everything she can about the mysterious Templeton Rate.

At times a frighteningly dark, deceptive story while at others a heavy character study, MOLT is a 94,000-word work of mystery fiction.