Molt – Chapter Seventeen

Blackbird’s Grill

SUNDAY, NOVEMBER NINTH. It’s 10:00 AM by the time I roll out of bed and take a shower. The shower had seemed smaller when I was younger, and I once again consider the absurd possibility that I’m twenty-nine and shrinking. As I walk downstairs, I can hear my mother talking to Claude in the kitchen, probably explaining just how much of a mess his sister’s gotten herself into. Most likely, my father is still sleeping; his usual Sunday routine has never changed. I don’t know if I can look my parents in the eye this morning so I leave through the back door without anyone knowing I’m even awake.

There was rain last night, and Ville Constance is nothing but wet, slushy snow. I remember mornings exactly like this so clearly. I don’t even realize where I’m walking until I’m already approaching Doneau High. I’d done this walk so many times before from the nondescript front door of the Donhelle home to the big red double doors of the high school that I suppose it’s just become instinctual. The sidewalks are all the same. The same old cracks I remember hopping over are still there. The last stretch of sidewalk wraps around a small hill, which I and every other kid would always cut across. There’s still a dirt path cutting through the middle of the grassy hill from all of the foot traffic. The walk from my parents’ house is only five blocks, but it seemed like such a chore when I was younger. It was probably the hardest thing I had to do when I was a kid, paling in comparison to the problems I’m dealing with these days.

Then I see the familiar red front doors and the flagpole. Embarrassingly, the first thing I think of when I see the waving red maple leaf is Zirk’s ill-fitting costume. There’s a scattering of cigarette butts at the base of the flagpole, and I imagine there must be kids today playing the parts that Claude and I once played. It’s the way life seems to circle around again and again. Same as it always is in the Constant City.

I walk right up to the doors, and I peer inside the window. It’s like I’ve never been away from here. In a microsecond, my memory runs through all the problems and worries and heartbreak and tears and laughter that I endured within these halls; I recollect it all in one instant. I step back a little to regain my place in this world. I think of the entire landslide of problems I’m running away from right now, and I wonder: if we actually had the power to relive our lives, to erase regrets, would things really be all that different? We’d just generate entirely new problems for ourselves, wouldn’t we? If one truly had the ability to make life-altering decisions, I would imagine that those decisions would be much harder to make.

I try the front doors, but thankfully they’re locked up tight for the weekend. I don’t think I’d really want to step inside anyway. Studying the details on the other side of the window, I see clouds of dust particles as they float under a shaft a light. It’s as though all of those specks and atoms have been sealed away since the moment I left. Like it’s now an airtight museum preserving the childhood of Isabelle Rochelle Donhelle: the floors she walked across; the doorknobs she handled; the water fountains she drank from. Would anyone care to see that? I can make out rows of student pictures on the walls, and I’m sure my graduating class is up there amongst them all. I wonder if anybody passes by my photo and wonders what her story is. Where is she now? Is she happier than she looks in this picture? Has she ever allowed someone into her life and then regretted it when he completely ruined everything?

I think I see a familiar Raven (Corvus corax) roaming the halls alone, but when it suddenly disappears from my sight, I’m convinced that it’s just my memory playing dirty tricks on me.

I decide to do my nostalgia a favor and I walk around behind the school. There’s the empty parking lot where some of the students would park their cars; those were the students who never had any problems fitting in. There’s the bike racks where kids would kick the bikes that weren’t theirs; or they would slash the seats and let the air out of the tires. I remember balancing on the middle bar of the bike racks, and how we would try to walk from one end to the other without falling. It felt like my first attempt at flying, as I tried to keep my feet off the ground for as long as I possibly could. There’s the track we would run around at least once a week. Just walking across the crunchy orangey-brown gravel of the track makes me want to skip class again. There are some basketball hoops sticking out from mounds of shifted, crumbling concrete. I recall the first time I ever sunk a shot; the first time the basketball swished through the unraveled netting that hung limp off the metal hoop. It filled me with so much delight and confidence that I decided to try out for the girls’ basketball team the next day. And we all know how that turned out. I partly blame this crooked hoop for the predicament I’m in now, possibly in some lame attempt to find something else to pin it all on. I look up, and there are the two windows of Room 210. One of them is noticeably out of place, a little off-color. A yellow-tinted window replacing the old one that had shattered when the raven flew through it. When he landed on my textbook, and opened my eyes.

And of course, just like bad poetry, there’s the yellow electrical box behind the gymnasium. More cigarette butts mark the spot where I’d spent two months of my life making out with a boy who didn’t deserve my attention in the first place. I sit down for a few minutes. Staring at the back of the school, I imagine the embarrassing dances that took part through that wall, inside the gymnasium. I recall going to only one of them, being dragged along by Cindey Fellowes. I’ve sometimes wondered what I’d missed out on by having never gone to the rest.

A skein of honking Canadian Geese (Branta canadensis) flies overhead, and there’s a man jogging around the track with his dog. I don’t know why, but a feeling comes over me that I shouldn’t be here. What if I should bump into someone that recognizes me? I can’t imagine what that conversation would turn into; what I might confess to people who don’t need to know anything about the person I’ve become. What if I convinced them there was something else out there? Some reason to leave this place like I once did. I feel like I need to disappear before this man notices me. I’m a ghost in this place I used to live. I used to believe Ville Constance was all I’d ever be, but now all it does is hurt my heart.

It’s about time that I find somewhere in this town to get some breakfast and a cup of coffee. From Doneau High, it’s a short walk into the town center, which isn’t much more than a crumbling strip mall book-ended by opposing gas stations. Everything appears closed, but a little further along, directly across the street from the paper mill, I find the Blackbird’s Grill. There are trucks parked outside of the restaurant, and judging by the snow, a few of them have been here for some time now.

I’m not in the restaurant long before that ghost-like feeling eerily creeps its way up my arms again. It’s in this moment that I realize what Templeton had told me is actually true. He told me I was changing. He called it molting, which might have been scientifically inaccurate, but there was truth to his words. And the truth is that I have changed. I’m not the same girl that grew up in this town; I don’t belong here anymore. I’ve become obsolete in the Constant City. And I need to go home.

Even if it kills me.

There’s a hand-stitched picture on the wall beside me; framed and set behind glass. Just as the name of this restaurant is the Blackbird’s Grill, the picture depicts a Common Blackbird (Turdus merula), surrounded by lyrics from the Beatles’ song of the same name. A few of the lyrics seem so foreboding to me as my eyes scuttle across them. As though I’ve never really known the words before now.

Blackbird singing in the dead of night

Take these sunken eyes and learn to see

All your life, you were only waiting for this moment to be free

Take these broken wings and learn to fly

All your life, you were only waiting for this moment to arise

The waitress finally comes to my booth with some coffee. I watch it as it pours into my cup, and it makes me uncomfortable to know how much I’ve come to rely on things I’m not used to. The stream of rich brown liquid is hypnotic. So much so that I don’t even flinch when it rises up over the brim of the cup, extending its murky reach across the table and dripping onto the floor.

“Isabelle?” the waitress says. “Is that you?”

I look up to the waitress, who has now ceased pouring the coffee so indiscriminately. She’s about my age. I wouldn’t say she’s attractive, at least not as attractive as I remember. A little overweight now. A little fuller in the face. Her frizzled hair is pulled back into a messy bun, exuding that small town feel. But I know for certain that it can only be her.

“Cindey Fellowes?”

“That’s right. Although it’s Cindey Devereaux now.” I’m trying to spell that out in my head, adding up the E’s along the way. “What the hell are you doing back in Ville Constance?”

“Just seeing what’s new.”

“New? Here? Jeez-us, you should know better than that.” Cindey takes a rag from her apron, and starts mopping the coffee up from the tabletop. She tells me she’s got a break in two minutes and that she’ll come sit with me for a while. I ask her if she can bring me a scone on her way back, but when she’s unclear of what a scone is, I settle on a bran muffin instead.

I haven’t seen this girl since high school, so five minutes later when I realize I’m sitting across from Cindey Fellowes at a dirty diner in Ville Constance, it seems a little surreal. She’s drinking her coffee black, and I can’t imagine what would possess someone to do that. Neither of us knew the first thing about coffee in high school, but I suppose it’s only fair to assume that she should have changed at least a little bit too. Her cup’s almost empty by the time I stop pouring sugar into mine.

“It’s funny,” she says as she looks around the little restaurant. “I didn’t know this place existed when we were in high school, even though our fathers worked right across the road. We were so oblivious to everything when we were growing up.” I can’t help but agree with her. “So what have you been doing since you left? Weren’t you going to school in Austin?”

“It’s Boston, actually. But close.”

“Well that’s still down there near Florida somewhere, right?”

I don’t have the heart to correct her. “That’s right.”

She asks me what it was I had studied, and I realize that the whole raven-through-the-window event never really held any significance to Cindey. In fact, I think we barely spoke to one another after that had happened. “Ornithology,” I tell her. “I’m an ornithologist now.”

“What is that, rocks?”

“Birds, actually.” I point at the image on the side of her coffee cup. I’ve been staring at it the entire time, because it seemed to be making me comfortable again. “You see that? That’s a blue jay. Its scientific name is Cyanocitta cristata.”

She turns the mug around, and looks at the black-and-white image painted on the ceramic. “How can you tell it’s blue?”

I don’t want to bore her, but I could point out at least ten obvious clues from that tiny drawing as to why it’s a blue jay and not something else. “I just know these things,” is all I say.

Cindey tells me that she had married two years out of high school and that she has an eight-year-old son. Her husband Rory worked at the paper mill too before being laid-off a year ago. She took this waitressing job to help them make ends meet. She takes a photograph from her apron pocket and shows it to me. “I always carry this with me. This is my son, Sylvester.”

I look at the picture, and I can’t even begin to imagine what this kind of life must be like. Sylvester is beautiful, and I worry a little bit about the hearts he might break once he’s older. Once he’s making out with some girl on the electrical box behind the high school.

There’s something else about this boy’s photo. Something that makes me question every decision I’ve made in the last twelve years. I don’t know what it could possibly be. A glint in his eye? The angle of his smile? The cheesy country lane backdrop behind him? Whatever it is, I wonder now for the first time if I had made the right choice in going to Boston. I wouldn’t have gotten mixed up in my relationships with Professor Nickwelter and Templeton Rate. Should I have stayed here nestled within the safety of this town I hated and never known anything else outside of it? What have I really gotten from getting where I am? Was there a reason for any of it? I recall the conversation I had with my mother last night: all those questions about Templeton that I told myself I would find answers for as soon as I returned to Boston. But do I even want to go back there now?

If Sylvester Devereaux had been telling this story, would he make you question everything you’ve ever done?

I hand the picture back to Cindey and finish the last bite of my bran muffin without another word.

“Do you remember when we were back in high school?” she asks me, as if just recalling that we’d known each other then. I don’t say a word, hoping there’s another thought coming. “You had a crush on some boy, and the two of you made out behind the gym like every day for a year. Remember?”

“Vaguely,” I tell her. I don’t want to admit it was ten months shorter than she can recall.

“Did you ever find out what it was he wanted to ask you?”

“You mean, The Question, right?”

“Yeah, that’s right. The Question. What was that all about?”

“I have no idea.”

“Don’t you ever wonder what it must have been? Wouldn’t it eat you up inside to never know something that you always wanted to?” She takes a tiny sip of coffee from her blue jay mug. “I think something like that would just kill me.”

“You know, I never really gave it much thought Cindey.” I wonder how convincing I actually am.

I thank Cindey for the coffee and muffin, and she graciously informs me that my two-dollar meal is on the house. She makes me promise that I’ll come back one to Ville Constance again one day, so we can have more time to talk. I get the feeling that she must have some amount of pity for her unmarried and childless old friend. I do promise her, and I leave the Blackbird’s Grill with the hope that I can be true to my word.

All my life, I was only waiting for this moment to arise.

When I return to my parents’ house, my mother is on the front porch with Claude. He’s got his bag with him, which means he’s probably on his way back to the orphanage. She asks me where I’ve been all morning, and I tell her I was reminiscing.

There’s a large finch, a Pine Grosbeak (Pinicola enucleator), foraging in the neighbors’ bushes. The same bushes I tossed my cigarette into last night. Asking Claude if he knows what kind of bird it is, he tells me it’s not a bird, it’s a bunny. I tell him it was nice to meet him, and Mom says she’ll be back in a half hour.

I hear the sound of the television, turned up far louder than it needs to be, indicating my father has already sat himself down for the afternoon. “Hockey again?” I ask him.

If my father had been telling this story, it would be very predictable.

“It’s a matinee game,” he tells me. The second part of the home-and-home series between Montréal and Boston. I sit down for a moment to watch with him. So far, the Bruins are up one goal to none.

It’s not until a commercial break that my father acknowledges me again. “Your mother misses you Bella,” he tells me. “You should really call home more often.”

There’s a Long-Eared Owl (Asio otus) on the television screen. I think it’s a commercial for life insurance, but I’m not really paying attention to it.

“I know Dad,” I tell him. “But sometimes I really don’t have anything to say. My life is so…well, it’s not very interesting.”

He takes a look around the living room, moving just his head like a bird would do. “But it’s got to be better than this, no?”

I think about what my mother told me last night. Something about things going unnoticed. “Mom told me you guys are getting a divorce. What did you do Dad?”

Me? Why does it have to be my fault?” His eyes get glossy, and he stares at me accusingly. “Sometimes things just don’t work out Bella. Life is full of change that you can’t predict or control. You just have to accept things for what they are.”

Do they rehearse these lines just so I’ll have no idea what they’re talking about? So I won’t know who I can blame for anything? “Yeah Dad. I know.”

Just then, Boston adds another goal. Two-to-nothing. I find it ironic that it’s a French-Canadian doing the scoring for them, but no one else in the crowd seems to make a deal out of it. There’s a loud noise, like a train’s horn as the home team scores. Dad is not nearly as excited as the fans on the screen.

Before I can think another thought, the horn goes off again. Dad is furious now, although there appears to be some confusion on the ice. The horn sounds once more, but nobody has scored. The arena is having some sort of technical difficulty with its sound systems. The players on the ice stop skating, and they look up into the stands, pointing. The horn blows yet again, and this time the cameras pan up into the crowd. Some of the fans are yelling, panicking. Some are running from their seats. Beer and popcorn are flying. Before I know it, the hockey game quickly cuts to an unscheduled commercial break.

But I know what it was that I saw. There was just enough time between the screaming crowd and the commercial for Glade Plug-Ins to notice them. The Banknorth Garden was full to the rafters with Australian Superb Lyrebirds (Menura novaehollandiae).

Instantly, I recall Templeton’s tale of wasted potential. His story about the birds that flew through New York City, speaking Mandarin.

And I know immediately that I need to get back to Boston.

NEXT CHAPTER

Molt – Chapter Sixteen

The Constant City

SATURDAY, NOVEMBER EIGHTH. I had to fly from Boston to the Pierre Elliot Trudeau International Airport in Montréal and then connect to the Sept-Îles airport before I remembered why I hate coming home. Well, aside from the obvious reasons. From Sept-Îles, it’s still an hour-and-a-half-long bus ride to Ville Constance. I’m sitting on a Greyhound with a cold cup of airport coffee and staring out the window, remembering these familiar winter skies above me. I imagine my parents inside the warm Donhelle home right now: my father sitting in his chair watching the hockey game while my mother prepares dinner. Same as it always is in the Constant City.

I decided on Wednesday night that I would make the trip home this weekend. A few days away from everything that was falling apart around me in Boston would certainly be good for me right now. I haven’t been home since last Christmas, but even that was three years removed from the time before. I remember coming back to my apartment last year and telling Claude that my parents would be coming to see me the next time. He didn’t care though, he was just happy to be home too, after spending a week at the Nickwelters’ house.

This time around I don’t have to worry about who’ll be looking after him while I’m gone.

From the Greyhound station in Ville Constance, I place the pre-arranged phone call, letting my parents know that I’ve finally arrived. The conversation is short, and my father tells me he’ll come pick me up just as soon as the first period is over.

Across the street from the bus station is Saint Francis Elementary School. That old familiar hedge may be iced over, but it still taunts me. I wonder how many kids have cut their faces and scraped their knees and torn their coats since I’ve been through there? I think about carrying my bags over to the school right now and giving it another run, but then I remember just how good change has been for me lately.

There’d been no sign of Templeton Rate or Professor Nickwelter for the rest of the week. No further visits from Anton Frye or Detective Dunphey. I hadn’t followed up with Jerry Humphries about the strange goings-on in the south lab, and I completely forgot about those six swans covered with the tarp until now. The death of Becky Chandler had been made public on Wednesday morning, and I had a long talk about everything that afternoon with Steffen James. At first he didn’t want to discuss it, but I think he could tell I needed to talk to somebody. Uncomfortably, he listened to me drone on about my relationship with Templeton, from start to finish. He sat through everything I had to say. And after it all, Steffen was the one who convinced me to take some time off.

Now I’m standing alone in the dark and cold and empty bus depot. Even the Greyhound has left by the time my father pulls up in the familiar family car. The same car since I was twelve.

Same as it always is in the Constant City.

He pops the trunk open and steps out as I toss my bags in the back. “ ‘Allo Bella! It’s good to see you again.” He gives me a hug, which I have to admit, is a nice feeling, and one that I haven’t experienced too often outside of Ville Constance. But he is quick to let go. “Hop in. We can still make it back for the second period.” A part of me was hoping that Dad would have grown his beard back by now, but he still keeps his face shaved clean to this day.

We’re home in another seven minutes, which included a minute more of conversation at the most. My father is happy to tell me that the Boston Bruins are playing in Montréal tonight, and they play each other again tomorrow in Boston. He calls it a ‘home-and-home’ series, which strikes a strange parallel in my mind: I think that this weekend will be my own personal home-and-home series.

“What’s the score Dad?” I ask, but no possible answer could really make me care either way.

“Zero-zero,” he says, stepping on the gas.

Touching the freezing window with the tips of my fingers, I peer through the glass. As much grief as I give this town, I’m honestly still surprised that nothing appears to have changed at all. I’ll give it the benefit of the doubt however, since it is dark outside, and it doesn’t seem as though they’ve ever put in more than the familiar six streetlights I recognize along this road.

As soon as I enter the house the smells hit me. It’s pine trees. It’s lemons. It’s roses. It’s a roast beef cooking in the oven. It’s the hardwood floors that have just been washed and waxed, the carpets that were recently vacuumed. The footprints that were sure to have been on the carpeted stairs have all been carefully brushed away; all of the fibers no doubt meticulously combed forward. I want to run my finger along the top of the picture frame, but I know exactly what I’ll find: nothing. The cork coasters are already pre-set and waiting for me on the coffee table.

And then Mom comes out of the kitchen, in her famous pink ‘MOM’ apron, arms spread wide as a Wandering Albatross (Diomedea exulans). As dismayed as I sound, I look forward to the oncoming embrace, and hope I can get a bit more from my mother than what my father had graciously provided earlier.

“Bella! It’s so good to have you home, sweetheart!”

“Hi mom. I guess it’s about time, isn’t it?”

“At the very least, you could start returning your mother’s phone calls.”

“I know. I’m sorry about that.”

“Why don’t you get your father to take those bags upstairs for you?”

We both notice Dad has already sunk back into his chair and all attention has been diverted back to the hockey game. “That’s okay. I’ll bring them up myself.”

“Okay. Make sure you wash up too.” She turns back to the timer on the oven, although I’m sure her internal clock is far more accurate. “Dinner will be ready in six-and-a-half minutes.”

“Of course it will.”

“Oh, did you see how nice the table looks?” My mother proudly directs my attention into the dining room. It’s the same table setting they’ve used since I was nine.

Same as it always is in the Constant City.

“Very nice. It’s good to see you mom.”

Opening my bedroom door, I’m not the least bit surprised to find that the sheets on my bed are the same ones that were there when I’d left twelve years ago. Nothing that used to be in this room seems to have been taken out, and nothing new has been added. At first glance, it appears as though my old bedroom has been unaffected by time, yet I can tell that something is, well…off.

My reading lamp sits in the same position, angled just so I could read my Power Of Science textbooks and the Audubon Society Encyclopedia before bed.

My stuffed pig remains on the top of my dresser, eyes to the door, exactly where he has always sat.

The same cutout paper stars still hang from the same ceiling light.

The same old tape player sits on the ledge beneath my window, the ledge where I would sit and wonder what kind of a world was really outside; out beyond Ville Constance. One night I saw the neighbors across from us making out in their kitchen, which I considered to be pretty exciting when I was twelve. I see their kitchen lit up now, and all I can visualize is Becky Chandler with her head in the sink. I close the same old curtains to try and block out that horrible reminder.

A few colored drawings I scribbled in school when I was eight are still pinned on the same spot of the same corkboard above the same small desk where I would sit and do all of my homework. There’s a drawing of our house, with me standing outside by myself. There’s a pond of ducks, even though I can tell now that they’re horribly inaccurate and extremely off model. There’s even a drawing that Antonia herself had scribbled during one of the dozens of times that she stayed with us. I think it was supposed to be an elephant, but it’s hard to tell since it has far more spider-like qualities. I remember telling her that I would pin it up at this very desk, so she’d never lose it. But Antonia’s not here anymore and her purple pachyderm-arachnid is.

There’s some notches carved into the doorframe that marked my growth spurts when I was young. Tiny dates are scribbled beside each notch in pencil, in my father’s printing. I can visualize myself getting younger and younger as I follow them down with my fingertip. There’s a few more that had been added by some of the children who stayed with us, but they never returned to see how much they’d grown. They would find new homes, where they would probably pick up in their new rooms where they left off in mine. Those marks are scattered all around in the middle, but mine dominate the highest points.

There’s one mark that’s slightly above where the top of my head is now, and I remember adding that one the last time I was here. I don’t know why I did it, but I smile a little when I think about it now. Of course, the reason as to why I appear to have shrunk since then is a mystery. I try to remember what shoes I was wearing a year ago, not that my mother would let any shoes go beyond the front entrance.

Everything is as it was. And yet there’s still something in this room that feels oddly out of place. Something unusually usual, and I don’t know what it could possibly be.

I turn off the light and walk back out into the hall. There’s a boy, maybe seven or eight years old, coming out of the other bedroom. I guess I’ll be sharing the bathroom with him for the next couple of days.

“Hi there,” I say to him, realizing I don’t really know how to talk to kids any more.

“Hello!” he says with unexpected jubilation. “Are you my sister?”

“Well, I am for this weekend. My name is Isabelle. What’s your name?”

“Claude.” Of course it is, I think to myself. Why wouldn’t it be? “And it’s dinner time!” he yelps, and he runs down the stairs like he’s been waiting his whole life to be fed. He’s about as excited for dinner as Dad is about the hockey game, as mom is about her table setting, and as I am about taking these next three days to avoid my life back home in Boston.

The four of us sit around the table passing plates of roast beef, mashed potatoes and corn. Mom scoops servings onto my brother Claude’s plate, and he gobbles it all up at practically the same speed. Dad continues to watch the game from the table, which my mother would never have allowed when I lived here. The conversation is typical, and I have to put on a brave face when they ask me about work and Claude.

“Who’s Claude?” asks the boy of the same name. The name that’s almost making me sick at this point. The name that’s got me craving yet another cigarette. I actually bought my first pack last week, and brought another one with me for this trip. It’s lying inside my bag upstairs, just waiting for my first moment of weakness. The familiar pink plastic lighter sits in there too, having returned to its hometown now as well.

My mother explains that it’s the name of my parrot, and the kid is curiously amazed at the coincidence. Even if coincidences are almost entirely beyond his understanding at this point in his life.

Picking at my corn, I somberly say, “Claude is dead mom.” At that exact instant, the Montréal Canadiens score a goal. Dad cheers and accidentally flings a piece of roast across the room. My mother loses a bit of potato from her mouth as her jaw drops open in reaction to both my comment and the food on her floor.

“Did you see that?” my father asks anyone willing to listen. “What a goal!”

“That’s…awful,” my mother says, resurrecting the conversation. “I’m sorry. When did that happen?”

“You know, I don’t really want to talk about it mom.”

“Oh. Okay then sweetheart.”

“A parrot is a bird.” Claude says, as bits of chewed-up corn spew from his mouth. As oblivious as this kid is to my feelings on the subject, I have to give my father some credit for being even more oblivious.

“That’s right,” Mom tells him, wiping his face with her napkin. “Isabelle teaches people all about birds. That’s her job.”

“I know everything about birds,” he says to me.

I’m almost impressed by his enthusiasm. “Well, you probably know more than some of my students do,” I try my best to not think of any one student in particular.

With his fork, Claude spears what’s left of the roast beef on his plate and holds it up to me inquisitively. “What kind of bird is this?” he asks.

After my parents have gone to bed, I sneak outside onto the front porch to have a cigarette. Smoking has been the only thing that’s kept me relatively calm all week. Steffen James was considerate enough to pretend he didn’t even notice. My parents don’t drink coffee, and I’ve gone almost all day so far without a cup. I had a cup at the Tim Horton’s in Sept-Îles, but that’s a far cry from the Starbucks I’ve grown used to in Boston. At least at Starbucks you can control your own cream and sugar ratios; the girl at the Tim Horton’s insisted I decide between ordering it black, single-single, double-double, triple-triple or any of the combined variations. As if the commoners could not be trusted with their own cream and sugar. Canada seems so strange to me now. My muscles have been twitching all evening, so I’m hoping that a cigarette will help put everything at ease for just a bit longer.

It’s not long before my mother comes outside and catches me. It shouldn’t be a surprise though, she probably heard me coughing from her bedroom. I hide the cigarette behind my back, worried about getting busted, and that she might send me back up to my room.

“What are you doing out here sweetheart? It’s freezing outside!”

“I’m just doing some thinking mom.” It’s the most generic answer I can give, and only I hope it’s enough to satisfy her curiosity. But I should know that nothing much gets by my mother, ever since she told me she’s always known it was a hickey that she found on my neck that one Valentine’s Day so many years ago. “What are you doing up?” I ask her.

“I was just washing the floors,” she responds, and follows that by sniffing at the air outside on the porch. “Is that smoke?” she asks. “Were you smoking?”

Embarrassingly, I swing the cigarette back around to show her the evidence. God, I don’t miss being a kid at all anymore. “Yeah mom. I’ve picked up a few bad habits here and there along the way.”

“Are there any good habits?” my mother asks, as though she’s already accepted the fact that her daughter could possibly be flawed. Or maybe as an indication that she’s acknowledged her own bad habits over the years.

Either way, I take another puff, hoping that the smoke will be enough to take the blame for these tears in my eyes. It’s not though.

“Are you okay Isabelle?”

“That’s a tough one to answer mom.” It’s hard to admit anything to my mother. And especially hard to admit that I’ve finally changed after all these years, since I left this small town behind me. “I guess I’m just hitting a rough patch.” Not that she can relate.

“Everybody hits those patches, sweetheart.” She sits down on one of the two cold, frosted plastic porch chairs. A feeling comes over me: the strangest feeling that I should’ve already had this conversation with my mother. Like we were supposed to have had this talk years ago, but just accidentally missed out on it.

“I think this is a bit more than that,” I confess. I go on to tell my mom all about the foolish affair with Professor Nickwelter: how it all started, and even how it ended. I tell her about my birthday a month ago, and when I met Templeton Rate and how I thought a change would do me some good. I tell her how wrong I was. I tell her about the awful night in the Salem graveyard on Halloween, and that a student of mine was murdered. Murdered! I can barely even believe it myself as I say the words. I tell my mother how I ended things with Templeton because I was afraid of losing my job. There was far too much at stake. A relationship shouldn’t feel so costly, should it? I listen to myself ramble on, and I think that maybe I’m being selfish. I’m hoping for nothing more than a relationship, when there are people in this world without anything at all. A woman has been killed. Professor Nickwelter, a good friend of mine like it or not, is accused and missing. There’s a litter of angels in Ville Constance, just hoping for a family.

“Sometimes things change,” is what I get from my mother. “Whether you want them to…whether you think they should or not.” But I don’t want to hear that. Especially not in this town. She stares out into the street, lit only by the dimming lights of the neighborhood. From somewhere, there’s a warm breeze that sweeps up onto the porch. It carries a leaf that whirls around the corner of the house. I’m convinced that I’d seen that very same leaf fifteen years ago. Same as it always is in the Constant City.

I toss the cigarette into the neighbor’s yard. When I turn back to my mother, I’m surprised to find that she’s now holding one too, and trying to light it up behind the shield of her hands.

“Mom? What are you doing?”

“Everyone’s got habits,” she says with the cigarette hanging out of her mouth. Finally, she lights the thing, and leans back in the porch chair with a smile. “But not all of them are this good.”

“When did you start smoking?”

“I always have. Sometimes things don’t need to change in order to appear different. Sometimes things remain the same, but go unnoticed.”

I don’t know what to say to her; I just find myself trying to imagine my mother and I sitting on this same porch fifteen years ago sharing a cigarette together. But I can’t. It’s just too implausible. I don’t have to come up with anything more to say though, because she’s not through yet.

“Your father and I are getting a divorce.”

What?” Thanks mom. Thanks for the perfect capper to my week. “What are you talking about?”

“Things haven’t been working for a long time Isabelle. We finally decided that we’d both be better off if we were apart.”

If my mother had been telling this story, it would be bursting with the unexpected.

“Like I said,” she continues. “Some things always remain the same, but simply go unnoticed.”

“I don’t know what to say. When were you planning on telling me?”

She takes a long drag and exhales it like a seasoned pro. “Maybe you should call your mother back every once in a while.”

Thanks for not holding a grudge Mom. That’s sweet of you. “The night Claude went missing, I also noticed that my phone had been unplugged,” I tell her. “The more I’ve thought about it though, the more I’ve considered that maybe it was Templeton who had done it. Even if I can’t figure out why.”

“Honestly Isabelle, it doesn’t sound like this man was a very good choice for you.” She’s right of course, and more I think about Templeton Rate, the more I realize he scares me more than anything. “What are you going to do when you get back to Boston?” she asks.

Finally, I sit down on the chair next to her. What am I going to do? I think back to the last conversation I had with Templeton, in the university parking lot. He told me that everyone would always believe in something different. And he knew about Professor Nickwelter, even before the whole horrible story had been made public. In the cemetery, he told me he believed in angels. He told me that he couldn’t force me to believe in the same things he did, but that he could make me accept them. I remember the night he told me he loved me. I remember waking up to find him by the window with tears in his eyes. The morning we sat on the sidewalk outside his apartment, he told me that he could see traces of life everywhere, when I could only see death. The dead pigeon. The wilted flowers left for the dead girl. The frog purse. Casualties of life, is what he called them. He asked me what was more important: life or death? But I didn’t have an answer, and he never gave me one. We were only a block away from The Strangest Feeling. From the place where he told me there wasn’t any right answers for anything in this world. He told me the amount of things that we don’t know outnumbers the amount of things we do. He told me if I was going to spread my wings I’d better have a safe place to land. He told me he was better than stale cheese bread and watery pea soup. He made his first appearance in my classroom and told my entire class that molting can be psychological. A temporary change, or a permanent one. He once asked me if I’d ever dreamt of flying. And I told him everything he wanted to know. I told him all my dreams. I opened myself up and told him everything I believed in. And in return, I believed every word he said to me.

I try to narrow down the exact moment where I went wrong. That one critical event that I can blame for getting me to where I am right now. It wasn’t when I tried out for the Doneau High basketball team. It was much, much later.

I’m certain now that it has something to do with all of the blue checkmarks. Templeton Rate knew far more than he should have known, and I blame myself for that.

My mother’s question still rings in my head. What am I going to do when I get back to Boston? “I’m going to figure out the truth behind Templeton Rate,” is what I tell her.

Before I head back upstairs to go to bed, I recall the feeling that something in my bedroom had felt out of place. But I couldn’t put my finger on it until now. I ask my mother, “You’ve been sleeping in my bedroom, haven’t you?”

“Yes. Ever since you left here twelve years ago.”

If I hadn’t left Ville Constance.

“Good night mom.” I kiss her on the cheek, and I go back inside the house.

NEXT CHAPTER

Molt – Chapter Twenty-Two

Epilogue

TRUTHFULLY, I DON’T know any more if that was where the story ended or if I had simply released everything I had left inside of me.

I didn’t know whether it was day or night when I had finally pulled myself to the rooftop’s edge and looked down.

I didn’t know for sure if it was toxic gas I saw below me, or if I was floating above clouds like the fortuneteller had once foretold. I remember her saying to me that my death would be something important.

I didn’t know if I was dead or if I was still alive. Had I awoken from a dream, or was I still trapped in a nightmare? How does one know these things?

I didn’t know the difference between what was real and what was imagined when all I saw below me was a sky filled with birds and men.

I didn’t know if my arm was still broken.

I didn’t know what it was my hand had discovered when I reached behind me to feel something on my back.

But I knew then that I had changed. And I smiled because I knew I’d finally deserved it.

END

Molt – Chapter Twenty-One

Broken Heaven

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Physically or psychologically.

“To change is to evolve,” he says.

Temporarily or permanently.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You mean on the bus that night?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I was doing this for everybody.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I want him to leave me alone.

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

I want him to forget about his broken Heaven.

And I want him to go to Hell.

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

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

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

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

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

Swallowed by the mists of Lake Avernus.

Through the gateway that leads to Hell.

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

NEXT CHAPTER

Molt – Chapter Twenty

Full Circle

I THINK THIS is about where we started, isn’t it? This is when I attempt to feel my way out of here. This is when I charge into the wall, and when I trip over my own feet. This is when my ulna tears through my skin, and when I wrap my shirt around my arm to stop the bleeding.

And this is when I blame Mrs. Wyatt for putting me where I am right now.

I wonder if I’ll ever be able to find a way out of here.

If I hadn’t been hit by that car; if I hadn’t come back to Boston; if I hadn’t been teaching at Hawthorne University; if I hadn’t joined the high school science club; if I hadn’t been rejected from the Doneau High basketball team.

Yes, this is exactly where we started; we’ve come full circle inside this square box. But it feels kind of like those misshapen pegs; like trying to stick the square peg into the round hole.

I wonder when I’ll ever find the courage to blame myself?

But Professor Nickwelter had tried to stop me, hadn’t he? At the very least, he tried to convince me I had it all wrong. He wanted me to stop interfering with things that I didn’t understand. He told me that he’d found the truth, or was getting much closer to it. He told me that should I ever get a chance to undo the mistakes I’ve made, I should take it. He told me that maybe Templeton Rate could be the one to save us all. Nickwelter called Templeton a genius. Just as Humphries had. And just as I had before them. We couldn’t all be so blind, could we? But is it not also possible that we’ve been seeing the same thing, just completely differently?

And I think that Professor Nickwelter was only hoping I’d stop mucking about in all of these awful things because he actually wanted them to happen.

And I think that the things I saw in Nelson Hatch’s journal were possibly the very same things I’d seen beneath Jerry Humphries’ coat.

And I think that this really might be the age of Templeton Rate, whether glorious or not.

As Isabelle Donhelle woke one morning from uneasy dreams, she discovered that she had changed.

I plant my socked-feet firmly on the metal floor, brace my right arm on the wall and stand up again. But this time with the feeling that it might be for the last time. I touch my left arm wrapped in my blood-soaked t-shirt. I recall tripping as I ran across the floor. Did I trip over something other than my own feet though? I reach out my one good arm to make sure. I try to fool myself into imagining that if I can find what it was, it will be the one thing that can help me. Honestly, I’m not entirely sure how I could have missed something in this vault in the first place, but the probability is made indisputable when I grab hold of what feels to be a leg. My heart skips a beat or two when I realize there’s someone in here with me! I question the degree of this person’s existence, whether alive or dead or perhaps somewhere in between, but my uncertainty is answered when the leg shakes my hand off of it.

“Do you mind?” a deep voice questions me from the darkness.

“I-I’m sorry,” I start. “I didn’t know there was anyone else in here.”

“I was wondering how long it would take you.” This man’s voice is strong and rumbling, reminding me of Zirk and his buzzing vocal chords. But due to the nature of this metallic vault, the voice I hear now is an unsettling sort of reverberation. “Couldn’t you hear my breathing?”

“Honestly, no.” I tell him. “But I don’t think my head’s been working properly of late.”

Now that I’m aware of it though, this man’s breathing really is quite evident. My head must have been ringing this whole time from when Humphries knocked me unconscious. “It’s Isabelle, right?”

“Uh, yes,” I say in slightly bewildered wonderment. “Do I know you?”

“I was just making sure.”

“How did you get in here?”

“The same way you did, I suppose.”

I pause for a moment before asking the next question my mouth wants to rattle off, but only because I’m fearful of what the next answer might be. “Do you know Templeton Rate?”

“Doesn’t everyone?” His breathing continues to make me uneasy. “Do you hate him as much as I do?”

I think it takes me longer than it should to answer this. “I want to. I really want to hate him, but I don’t. Even after everything he’s done to me.”

“That’s nothing,” he grinds. “You should see what he did to me.”

“What’s happened to you? What has Templeton done?”

“All of us just wanted to be a part of it. Me and Mitchie. Rob and Bob and Zirk. Jerry too. We just wanted somewhere to belong when this was all over. There were others too. But some people are willing to change, and some people aren’t. It’s as simple as that.”

“It’s not always that simple,” I answer. “Change is harder for some of us. Not everyone evolves at the same time.”

“They do in Templeton’s world. Or at least, they will.”

The ambiguousness of this conversation makes me feel like I’m listening to Templeton himself. “What’s your name?” I ask.

“Tony,” he says tentatively. But then he corrects himself. “My name was Tony. But not anymore.”

“Not anymore?”

“‘Everyone is supposed to have a codename,’ is what he told us. Mitchie chose Flamingo. Zirk chose Puffin. Naturally, Robin and Bob chose Robin and Bobwhite. Bob’s last name is White too, if you can imagine such a stupid coincidence. They all thought they were so clever, but look at them now.”

I think of Zirk and those colorful crusty scabs forming on the bridge of his nose. Rob and Bob. Even Mitchie Mitcherson, standing on crutches and balancing on his one good leg just like a flamingo.

“And there were more of us. There was even a Bird of Paradise and a Goatsucker, but I don’t know what happened to everybody. Some of them just disappeared. One of them, Crossbill I think his name was, was on top of the State House the last time I saw him. He was trying to tear the copper pinecone off the roof with his teeth. Well, the teeth he still had left anyway.”

In my head, I see the pictures from Nelson Hatch’s journal of pigs and rats and frogs with wings. And the very last picture in the book. The one that made Professor Nickwelter stop when he saw it. All of the terrible pieces were falling into place.

“Everyone was supposed to have a codename,” he reiterates. “I chose Ostrich, and before I knew it, Templeton Rate was introducing Ostrich DNA into my body. Bird hormones. And now my toes have fused together and these stupid long eyelashes keep getting in my mouth. It’s horrible.”

I can’t help but think of Antonia from back home in Ville Constance. Cruelly, the kids at the orphanage nicknamed her Ostrich simply to make fun of her weight. She was always looking for somewhere to belong too.

“Templeton told us it was all part of a bigger plan,” he continues, not holding back anymore. I suppose he was finding some sort of freedom now in being able to talk to somebody. Or maybe it was more like finding redemption for whatever he might have done. “But now I’m stuck in here.” He begins to sob a little. I don’t know whether to be afraid of this man I can’t see in front of me, or to have pity for him. “It’s horrible,” he repeats. “I helped him build this thing, you know that? This stupid metal box. Me and the other guys, we did everything for him. But it’s hard to think that he was just using all of us in the end.”

“Humphries told me that Templeton was going to give me a choice,” I say, remembering the last words I heard before waking up in here. “But then he took that choice away from me, because he said I didn’t deserve it. And that’s when I saw the feathers under his coat.”

“Humphries was the first one,” he says. As distorted as this man’s voice is, I can still find jealousy in his words. “He was the first one to receive Templeton’s gift. And we were all supposed to get it, but just like you, I’ve had that choice taken away from me. Templeton called it a gift, but it would have been so much better than that.”

“But why would he deny you of it? And why would Humphries deny me?”

“Because you always hated Humphries, and this was the only thing he could think of that would hurt you as much as you’d hurt him.”

“That man is absolutely crazy.”

“But that’s why you’re here. And the only reason I’m in here is because I tried to save you.”

“I don’t understand,” I say, wondering why a total stranger would want to help me. But then I consider everything. And because of the fact that everything in the last month or so hasn’t made any sense at all, it makes this one absurd detail that much easier to believe. There’s just enough familiarity to this conversation that helps me make the connection. Sadly though, I think it’s all the sobbing that really gives it away. This isn’t a man at all. I turn unseen to this invisible person on the floor in front of me, and I ask her, “Antonia?”

“It’s Ostrich now Isabelle,” she growls. “It always has been.”

Just as the Fratercula arctica DNA mutated Zirk’s larynx and vocals, those of the Struthio camelus must have affected Antonia’s.

“Did you ever get that letter I sent you?” she asks me.

“I did. I still have it. It’s still on my bookshelf. You said you’d write me again, just as soon as you were adopted. But I never received another letter.”

“That’s because I was never adopted. Eventually, I ran away from the orphanage with a boy I met. I thought he was my boyfriend, but he dumped me less than a week later; he said that he only needed me to help him get out of there. One day, just a couple of months ago, I came to Boston to look for you, because I realized that you were the only friend I’d ever had. But I found Templeton Rate first, and I fell for him and all of his fantastic dreams. Did you know that he’s an orphan too?”

He told me his mother was dead and that he’d never met his father. Just one more from the litter of angels. Now that I think of it though, I’m sure that I never really believed him when he had told me William and Rose Endicott of Salem Massachusetts were distant relatives of his. I’m sure he was only trying to get rid of me that night so he could steal the journals from Nelson Hatch’s home.

“I helped him, just like the others helped him. We stole the swan boats from the lagoon. We built this vault. We released all of those birds into the city. We did everything he asked us to do.”

“But…why would you do all of that?”

“To belong. To actually matter in this world. All my life, I’ve only ever wanted to matter. My parents weren’t dead; they abandoned me. Which I’m sure is much worse. All I knew was that orphanage, and all of the kids in there that hated me. The only time I felt like I mattered was when I lived with you. Everyone there felt exactly the same way. All of us loved you for what you had. You had no idea how lucky you were.”

I guess I never stopped to think about what it must have meant to leave the orphanage for the warm nest of the Donhelle home. Even if for only one day. “Maybe I was lucky,” I tell her. “But I still had my own dreams; I still wanted more. It’s the same thing for everybody.”

“What did you dream?” she asks, almost in disbelief that it could even be possible.

I recall the time when Templeton had asked me about my dreams; when I told him that I only ever wanted to fly with the gulls from the top of the Prudential Tower. To be caught in the wind and hang for the briefest of moments, stuck in that one tiny piece of sky. But then I think back to my entire relationship with Professor Nickwelter, and when I sat there feeling worthless in the backseat of his car. In my mind, I re-live my one-month with Templeton, and the two months with Claude. It should be no contest, but I can’t decide who hurt me the most. I remember the last talk I had with Madeleine, and sitting on the porch sharing a cigarette with my mother. And I recall the photograph of Sylvester Devereaux that I held in my hands. And when Templeton said those three specific words to me, the night he had his hands on my shoulder blades, I can’t imagine now how I’d ever believed him. “I only ever wanted to be in love,” is what I confess to Antonia. “And for someone to love me. That’s the moment I’m most jealous of.”

“I only ever wanted to fly Isabelle. To fly as high as you had always seemed to me.”

“I’m sorry.” I wish I could have given her a gift like that, but I’m apologizing for the impossible. Though I’m sure that if you asked anyone what they would want if they possessed the power to have anything at all, ninety percent of those that are telling the truth would tell you they wish they could fly. “I’m sorry I could never give you that.”

“But Templeton can give me that,” Antonia says. “And he wanted to give it to everybody. Everybody except you.”

“Why not me?”

“Because you never believed in anything he wanted you to believe in. The stuff that really mattered, anyway. And he realized that he couldn’t force you to either.”

In a microsecond, I think about every word Templeton Rate had ever said to me. From the diner to the library to the sidewalk. From the cemetery to the parking lot to the university laboratory. When both of us were staring into the glimmering walls of this menacing metal box, he told me I’d be safe in here. He said this would be the one place in the city that I could be, if I wanted to stay the way I wanted to stay. This would be my only hope for a last chance. My last chance at death.

“He was going to put you inside this thing. To deny you of everything,” Antonia continues. “But I begged him to put me in here instead.”

“But why would you do that for me?” I ask her.

“It’s just like Michel Bourdon told me years ago,” she answers, but I don’t remember what that was. “Because the ostrich is the fattest of all birds. That’s why it will never fly.” She tries to sniff back the tears, but it’s too late to stop any of it at this point. “It was my turn to save you. But then Jerry Humphries put you in here anyway, because he hated you even more than Templeton did.”

I reach out to touch her face, to wipe her tears for the first time since we were children. And that’s when I feel them: the feathers, wet from crying. It’s chilling; quite possibly the most disturbing thing I’ve ever experienced. I’m glad now that it’s too dark in here to see anything.

I apologize to her for all the pain she’s ever known. But she says, “Don’t worry about it. It’s not your fault.” Exactly how Templeton would have answered me.

The two of us embrace the silence for a moment. This is how most of our conversations would go anyway. After I would fool her into believing everything would be okay, we would sit in silence for a while longer before moving on. Of course, now I’m finding it hard to convince myself that things really would be okay. I don’t know if either us can simply move on at this point.

My breathing has slowed down considerably, and I fear the lack of oxygen may have finally caught up with us. I wonder if I should give up, and start welcoming an end to it all. Death over life. Like I said earlier, it’s a much harder decision to make when you’re actually given the ability to make it.

But I give my life one more chance. I ask her, “You said you helped him build this thing we’re in?”

“That’s right,” she sniffs.

“And there’s no way out of here?” I feel like I’m grasping at straws. “Think Antonia.”

I can tell she’s thinking about it. She’d probably already given up herself, but now she considers the details. “There’s an emergency lock,” she says finally. “If there was a fire in here, the door would open.”

The lighter I’d slipped into my pocket earlier has shifted a little, and it’s only now that I realize I’ve been sitting on it this whole time. Taking it out, I roll it in my hand, and I think about how fantastic it was that I had ever had that relationship with the Claude from my youth. Because if I hadn’t known him, if he hadn’t ever broken my heart as casually as he did, I would never be here now. And I wouldn’t be holding this pink plastic lighter in my hand at this moment either.

“But how would you start a fire?” she asks me. “Did you bring some sticks to rub together?” I didn’t know sarcasm was part of Antonia’s repertoire.

I tell her about the lighter in my hand. But I leave out the details concerning its origins.

“Are you serious?” she asks. I want to thumb a tiny flame just to prove it to her, but I’m a little bit fearful that I might catch a glimpse of this girl I once knew so well, and that I wouldn’t recognize her at all now.

Taking the journal out of my pocket now too, I mull over about my options. The amount of raw scientific data inside this journal and the number of original thoughts from the mind of our school’s legendary founder is astounding to think about, but choosing death over life is a ridiculous notion at a time like this. I place the book into my left hand, and my broken arm does all it can to hold it steady.

With my thumb, I flick the lighter’s metal wheel a couple of times, but with no result. I almost try again, when Antonia stops me. Her hand tickles my arm a little; the coarseness of her palm indicates something other than flesh. “Please don’t look at me when you light it,” she says. There’s a kind of fear in her voice that I never knew possible. “Please Bella. Promise?” Even throughout the whole horrible ordeal she’s been through so far, there’s still something new that can scare her.

“I won’t,” I tell her. “I promise.”

She lets go of my arm, and I try again. This time it works, and the flame creates an odd flicker across the six metallic panels encompassing the two of us. I trying not to look, but I can see from my peripheral that Antonia is crouched into a ball, covering herself up the best that she can. I don’t look at my broken arm either, though I can’t help but catch a glimpse of a puddle of my own blood on the floor.

The yellowed paper within the leather journal catches fire easily, and I have to drop it quickly before it burns my hand or any of my makeshift bandages. I watch it smoldering on the floor, and I can’t help but become conscious of how great a loss this will be. To have such information only to throw it away? It’s inconceivable in an academic community such as mine. Especially factoring the importance of its author into the equation. I tell myself that it was this book or my life, but I still have a hard time truly believing I’ve made the right choice.

“Do you know where Templeton will be?” I ask Antonia, still curled into an egg-shape on the floor.

“Just look up,” she tells me, muffled under feathers. “Whether or not he’s already done what he promised to do, he’ll be up there.”

I’m not entirely sure what she means, but I think I have an idea.

I hear the emergency locks click open, and I push the door with my one good arm. It’s heavy, much heavier than I could have imagined, but it does slide open eventually. The flames are already beginning to subside, but the pile of black ash is far beyond saving. Without looking, I ask Antonia to come with me. There’s still enough left of the old Isabelle Donhelle that wants to help this poor girl. I haven’t changed completely.

“No. Leave me here,” she whimpers. “I don’t want to go out there anymore. Not like this.”

Still without looking at her, I step outside into the south lab. But I wait for her, and beg her again to come with me.

“Just leave me,” she keeps weeping. “Leave me.”

I try to imagine just how many lies Antonia must have had to believe in order to get to where she is now. I wonder what else I could have done, how many more lies I should have told her just to keep her in that orphanage in Ville Constance. To keep her inside the safest nest possible.

But I don`t have an answer for myself. I turn around and leave her for good.

The school seems so empty. And quiet. There are no more Parasitic Jaegers (Stercorarius parasiticus) screeching. No more Grey Shrikes (Lanius excubitor) shrieking. The horrible sounds I’d grown accustomed to hearing since coming back to Boston are gone. The dark of night lurks outside the windows, but I don’t know if this is still Monday, or if I’ve been sealed away from the world for much longer than that.

I stop by my office to find it’s been completely overturned. Somebody was looking for something in here; what exactly, I’m not certain. The textbooks and field journals from my bookshelf have all been tossed to the floor. My ornithology diploma still hangs on the wall, but the glass frame has been smashed. The bottle of wine remains unharmed, and I pop the cork with my one good arm and guzzle some of it down, hoping to numb the pain. As I do, I notice that once-sealed wooden box, a gift from the Diaz family lies open on the floor. The superstition was that if its contents were ever revealed to me, bad luck was destined to follow. What those contents might have been is a mystery though, since it appears empty. I don’t know whether this curse still applies, or if my current situation is trumping whatever preordained bad luck was meant to befall me.

Across the hall from my office, I notice Mrs. Claus has already got her Christmas decorations up. She must have done this while I was away, since I don’t remember the gaudy display being there before I left. I don’t know when the penguin ever became such a relevant icon for the holidays, but I put it out of my mind, and I continue down the hall towards the exit to the parking lot. I bump the wall with my broken arm. The wine is already throwing me off balance.

Upon opening the door, I’m frozen in fear by what I see: the ground is littered with birds, but this time they’re unmoving; they’re all dead. I almost step on a muster of dead Wood Storks (Mycteria americana), piled on top of one another just outside the door. In fact, the majority of the birds seem to be along the exterior of the school, as though they’d all flown to their deaths against the brick walls. I don’t see any signs of life, and the silence is much scarier than when the air was filled with that now-absent clamor. I crouch down to inspect some of the birds at my feet; their beaks and skulls are crushed. There’s blood everywhere. I convince myself that blocking out this massacre is really my only option.

On the university rooftop, at the northeast corner, something odd catches my attention: one of the six giant fiberglass swans is perched on the edge of the roof. The white of the bird stands out significantly against the night sky. The swan seems ominous, but its purpose will have to remain a mystery for the time being. I escaped from that vault in the lab for one reason alone: to find Templeton Rate.

I’m out on Parker Street now. The wine and the freezing air have combined to numb my left arm to the point where I barely feel the pain anymore. My bloodied fuzzy penguin socks leave faint pink footprints in the snow. Strangely, the entire city is completely dark, with no lights on anywhere in sight.

As far as I can see, there is destruction everywhere. Apartments and storefronts have all had their windows smashed. The windshields of cars are caved-in, their hoods dented. And there are piles upon piles of dead birds. It’s so uncomfortable, and incredibly hard to stomach. There’s a misty haze everywhere, like a dusty sort of chemical filling the air. It tickles my skin. It’s scary, and it makes me think of Lake Avernus, the ancient lake the Romans once believed to be a gateway to Hell. The one with the toxic fumes that would kill any bird in its vicinity. Because Hell was a place without birds, and now I’m right in the middle of it. I think back to the thick fog on Halloween night in Salem, but this is even more frightening since there’s no one else around to reassure me that things will be okay. Even if they were lying. I have to stop myself for a moment when I consider how much further outside of Boston this catastrophe might have struck. I try not to breathe any of the mist in, and I make my way northeast towards the intersection of Parker Street and Huntington Avenue.

I near the Museum of Fine Arts, and atop its neoclassical portico I spot what appears to be another giant swan. Again, there’s no indication as to why it would be there, but when and if the city should ever care to start looking for their six precious lagoon swan boats again, I’ll at least be able to tell them where to start.

There are still no lights anywhere. The only illumination cast upon me is from the glow of the moon. I look up, and recall what Antonia had said to me when I wondered how I might ever find Templeton again. “Just look up,” is what she instructed me to do. So I do, and the first thing that catches my attention is the tip of the Prudential Tower. The dreams I’ve shared with Templeton tell me to head in that direction.

Even along Huntington Avenue, there are still birds everywhere. I spot a pile of dead Short-Tailed Albatrosses (Phoebastria albatrus). I see the same two ostriches from earlier, their bodies now lying dead on the subway tracks. There’s so many species out here, it’s like an avian zoo. Or maybe more like a museum, considering how lifeless they are.

I try to come to a reasonable conclusion as to why and how all of this has happened. It’s almost as though these birds simply fell from the sky; some of them hit the streets or smashed into parked cars, others crashed through windows. My first thought is it must have been caused by whatever this chemical is in the air. Perhaps this really is some kind of deadly, toxic gas. But I’ve walked a mile already, and it hasn’t slowed me down, giving no indication that the gas is poisonous.

Because birds fly by the use of navigation along the Earth’s magnetic fields, I consider the fact that the answer might be related in this way. An electro-magnetic pulse would not only temporarily damage the magnetic field, sending the birds into chaotic tailspins, but it would probably also knock out power to the city at the same time, which is a good indication as to why the streetlights are all dead too. It seems like something right out of a science fiction movie, but I’m finding more and more that my ability to believe in anything, and I mean absolutely anything at all, has become far less filtered over the past few weeks.

But all of these puzzle pieces are still just that. And I’m afraid that if they should all come together, things might make even less sense to me.

A little further east on Huntington is the Prudential Tower. Its radio mast points like an arrow to Heaven. Or maybe acting as a marker for it. I run across the Prudential Center courtyard, but I stop cold when I see three dead Southern Cassowaries (Casuarius casuarius) on the grass. These giant Australian flightless birds are strikingly beautiful with their blue face and neck, but they are also fearsome with their sharp toe claws and horn-like casques. The loss of these creatures saddens me, but I’m also relieved, as there may have been no way I could’ve come so close to the front entrance if it was still guarded by these dangerous animals.

Conveniently, the front door to the tower is already wide open for me. The elevator doesn’t seem to be working, but the stairwell is also open. Running up fifty-two floors has never seemed so inviting to me as it does right now.

But if every step I take was meant to bring me a little closer to Heaven, then why do I feel as though Hell was the more probable destination?

NEXT CHAPTER

Molt – Chapter Nineteen

Frightmolt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tell me about it.

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

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

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

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

It really is that obvious, isn’t it?

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

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

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

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

“He told me so himself.”

“You spoke with Templeton? When?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What are you saying?”

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

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

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

If I hadn’t gone into The Strangest Feeling.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s that?”

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

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

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

It means this is the glorious age of Templeton Rate.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It seems impossible. Like fourteen seconds for a chicken.

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

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

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

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

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

“What? Where?”

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

“We’ve got to get out of here Bella!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I try to, but I can’t.

He asks, “Can you lift your head?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“All of what?”

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

“What are you talking about?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s the moment that I fall unconscious.

And that’s when this story actually begins.

NEXT CHAPTER

Molt – Chapter Twelve

The Molt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He wouldn’t display false emotion.

He wears his heart on his sleeve.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If he hadn’t made me feel special.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I can change, can’t I?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Greetings, Professor Donhelle,” he says.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s an understatement.”

“You didn’t fuck him too, did you?”

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

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

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

“Really?”

“Well, what do you think?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What? Really?”

“Really.”

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

“It’s true.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What are you doing for Halloween?”

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

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

“What?” I ask.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s correct.”

“By yourself?”

“It’s what I do every year.”

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

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

“Situation? You mean our relationship?”

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

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

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

“Do I need a costume?”

“Have you ever celebrated Halloween before?”

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

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

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

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

“Costumes don’t scare me.”

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

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

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

“Can’t I just be myself?” I ask.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is that worse, I wonder?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nothing.

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

Still nothing. Claude is nowhere to be found.

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

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

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

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

Still nothing.

And still no tears.

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

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

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

If only I’d called my mother back.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

His hands never leave my back.

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

If only I hadn’t believed him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

NEXT CHAPTER

Molt – Chapter Nine

In the Lek

From the field journal of Professor I. Donhelle:

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

………

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 ………

From the field journal of Professor I. Donhelle:

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

 ………

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Is there a point to your story?”

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

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

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

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

 ………

From the field journal of Professor I. Donhelle:

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

 ………

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

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

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

“I’m afraid that’s too personal.”

“You fucked him, didn’t you?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

 ………

From the field journal of Professor I. Donhelle:

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

………

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

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

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

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

No it’s not Templeton Rate. You are.

If I hadn’t stayed there believing his lies.

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

 ………

From the field journal of Professor I. Donhelle:

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

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

………

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

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

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

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

 ………

From the field journal of Professor I. Donhelle:

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

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

 ………

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

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

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

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

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

Formally and informally, my class was officially over.

NEXT CHAPTER

Molt – Chapter Seven

The First Day of Snow

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

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

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

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

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

Just one more from the litter of angels.

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

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

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

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

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

If I hadn’t wanted to see him again.

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

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

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

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

“That’s good. Thank you…um, Tanya.”

“Haley.”

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

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

“Jack.”

Close enough.

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

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

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

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

“How about a frightmolt?” he asks.

“Go on,” I urge him.

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

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

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

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

And I knew it wouldn’t be long.

“I thought this was ornithology?”

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s Templeton actually.”

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

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

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

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

Red circle.

“You mean in the figurative sense?”

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

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

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

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

“Not to me it doesn’t.”

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

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

“Yes it is.”

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

Again, red circle.

……..

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

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

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

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

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

“Excuse me?”

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

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

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

“Well then, how’s tonight sound?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’d say more than two pages.”

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

“The doorman thing, right?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Red circle.

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

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

“Well, are you or aren’t you?”

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

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

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

“People like you?”

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

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

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

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

…And I take the figurative plunge.

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

If I didn’t offer him that extra help.

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

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

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

NEXT CHAPTER