Molt – Chapter Twenty

Full Circle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I was just making sure.”

“How did you get in here?”

“The same way you did, I suppose.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Not anymore?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That man is absolutely crazy.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But…why would you do all of that?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why not me?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s right,” she sniffs.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I won’t,” I tell her. “I promise.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NEXT CHAPTER

Molt – Chapter Ten

Of the Ambiguous and the Once-Amphibious

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

GONE FOR

BREAKFAST SHOW

YOURSELF OUT AVOID ZIRK

AT ALL COSTS

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

And what the hoop is a zirk anyway?

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

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

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

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

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

“Templeton Rate. Is he still…around?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I don’t see a bottle of ammonia anywhere.

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

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

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

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

“Of course you didn’t.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I don’t recognize anything around me at all.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then I remember just how rude he can be.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Tell me about it.”

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

“Now you tell me.”

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

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

“Costume?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Hmm? No. Why would I know her?”

“She was in your class, wasn’t she?”

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

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

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

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

“What’s that?” I ask.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You know Isabella…”

“Isabelle,” I correct him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NEXT CHAPTER

Molt – Chapter Six

Unnecessary E’s

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

…………

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

If I wasn’t rejected from the basketball team.

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

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

…………

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

…………

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If I hadn’t met Cindey Fellowes.

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

…………

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Even Claude clucks his tongue in disappointment.

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

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

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

DONALD DUCK’S MIDDLE NAME IS FAUNTLEROY.

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

My jaw drops. How can this be?

“Templeton Rate?”

NEXT CHAPTER