Molt – Chapter Eighteen

The Glorious Age of Templeton Rate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s absolute chaos.

It’s utterly overwhelming.

It has to be Templeton Rate.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Fuck you,” he replies.

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

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

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

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

“No I don’t. Where’s Templeton?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maybe it’s my fault?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s Isabelle. Let me in.”

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

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

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

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

Like a hiding place.

Like a death trap.

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

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

“Mitchie let us in.”

Mitchie? Who’s Mitchie?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Bella?”

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

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

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

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

“What is it?” I ask him, terrified.

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

“A tool? A tool for what?”

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

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

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

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

Me?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Come with me.”

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

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

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

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

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

“See?” Templeton asks.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Even though they were twice as bad.

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

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

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

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

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

Claude flaps his re-grown wing with enthusiasm.

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

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

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

But I did.

If only Claude had stayed missing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or is it getting worse and worse?

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

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

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

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

“No.”

“But how did—”

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

“No.”

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

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

The glorious age of Templeton Rate.

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

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

“I thought you said Professor Nickwelter killed her?”

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

I hate it when he talks like this.

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

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

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

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

“What book?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One for sorrow, two for mirth,

Three for a funeral, four for a birth,

Five for silver, six for gold,

Seven for a secret not to be told,

Eight for heaven, nine for hell,

And ten for the devil’s own sel’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Professor Nickwelter?

NEXT CHAPTER

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Molt – Chapter Fourteen

The Weeping Angel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blue checkmark.

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

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

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

“Says you.”

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

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

HIM: “That’s right.”

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

HIM: “I’m nothing.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So what?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The plaque on the stone block reads:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How long have you smoked anyway?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh yeah? What was his name?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Too soon?”

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

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

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

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

“People like me you mean?”

“It’s everyone, Bella.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I already told you.”

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

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

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

“Really. Unlike me, right?”

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

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

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

“So you believe in angels?”

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

“Really? Are you serious?”

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

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

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

“Right.”

“Not yet. You?”

“No. But I don’t believe in angels.”

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

“At least I made a choice.”

“Do you know what an angel is?”

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

“I have no idea,” I say.

“What’s their purpose?”

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

“I don’t know.”

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

“I don’t,” I tell him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I roll my eyes in total agreement.

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

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

“I had it in your trunk.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I don’t think so.”

Shit-For-Brains?

“No.”

“How about Cunt Flap?

“Templeton, please.”

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

“My last words?”

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

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

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

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

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

NEXT CHAPTER

Molt – Chapter Seven

The First Day of Snow

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

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

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

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

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

Just one more from the litter of angels.

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

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

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

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

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

If I hadn’t wanted to see him again.

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

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

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

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

“That’s good. Thank you…um, Tanya.”

“Haley.”

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

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

“Jack.”

Close enough.

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

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

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

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

“How about a frightmolt?” he asks.

“Go on,” I urge him.

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

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

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

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

And I knew it wouldn’t be long.

“I thought this was ornithology?”

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s Templeton actually.”

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

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

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

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

Red circle.

“You mean in the figurative sense?”

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

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

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

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

“Not to me it doesn’t.”

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

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

“Yes it is.”

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

Again, red circle.

……..

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

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

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

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

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

“Excuse me?”

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

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

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

“Well then, how’s tonight sound?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’d say more than two pages.”

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

“The doorman thing, right?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Red circle.

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

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

“Well, are you or aren’t you?”

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

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

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

“People like you?”

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

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

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

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

…And I take the figurative plunge.

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

If I didn’t offer him that extra help.

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

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

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

NEXT CHAPTER

Molt – Chapter Three

The Strangest Feeling

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If I hadn’t slept with Professor Nickwelter.

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

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

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

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

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

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

And my answer was the same for all of them:

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

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

If only I had been paying attention that night.

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

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

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

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

Three…Two…One…Zero.

And there he is.

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

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

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

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

So I go in.

If I hadn’t walked inside The Strangest Feeling.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Thanks,” I confirm.

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

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

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

It really is the strangest feeling.

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

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

If I hadn’t been out of my element.

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

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

I take a sip.

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

Another tentative sip.

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

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

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

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

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

“And a coffee?” she asks.

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

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

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

If I hadn’t answered him.

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

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

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

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

“Uh…yeah.” I say. “French-Canadian.”

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

“I said I’m French-Canadian.”

“Is there such a thing?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Strangest coincidence, isn’t it?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And I believed him. Whoops. Sorry world.

If I hadn’t believed a word he said.

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

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

Whatever he wants at all. “Isabelle Donhelle.”

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

“Of course I am,” I say defensively.

“Really?”

“Why wouldn’t I be?”

If I hadn’t told him the truth.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Pardon me?” I ask.

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

“I can answer the first one for you.”

“Go ahead.”

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

“And the rest?”

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

“Do you sleep naked?”

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

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

“That’s right.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But there’s no answer.

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

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

Still no reply.

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

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

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

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

 Our Restrooms Have Been Professionally Sanitized

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

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

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

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

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