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.”
“‘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?