Molt – Chapter Seventeen

Blackbird’s Grill

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Even if it kills me.

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

Blackbird singing in the dead of night

Take these sunken eyes and learn to see

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

Take these broken wings and learn to fly

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

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

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

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

“Cindey Fellowes?”

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

“Just seeing what’s new.”

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

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

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

“It’s Boston, actually. But close.”

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

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

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

“What is that, rocks?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You mean, The Question, right?”

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

“I have no idea.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NEXT CHAPTER

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Molt – Chapter Four

Two Months of Kissing Claude

I WAS IN grade ten when I first met Claude. He had transferred to Doneau High in Ville Constance from a smaller high school in a smaller town even farther north. Cindey Fellowes told me that this new kid was eyeing me up in the hall as we came out of biology class one morning. I saw him too, but I pretended not to notice. It seemed so much easier to simply appear interested in class rather than boys, but fourteen-year-old urges have to give way sooner or later.

Claude was a natural beauty. Hidden under long, disheveled dirty brown hair and thick eyebrows were dark brown eyes that seemed to never look any further than my own. In fact, I don’t recall ever seeing him blink; his attention was unyielding. He strode through the halls of Doneau High everyday in the same fur-trimmed brown coat with an assured confidence that never seemed to waver. Even when he’d bump his shoulder into the wall as we sneaked glances at one another.

Our insecure peeking soon became timid smiles, which then turned into the odd “hi” and “hey there” greetings. It seemed a strange coincidence, but each morning when I came to school through those big red double doors, I would see Claude. We would say hello and then proceed with our daily schedules, sometimes without seeing one another for the rest of the day. Those mornings alone quickly became the only reason I went to class each day.

…………

Sunday, October 5. For three straight nights now I’ve imagined that the yellowed glass doors of The Strangest Feeling were actually the big red wooden doors of Doneau High, and that Templeton would be waiting outside for me just as Claude once did. But just like all dreams, this one has now been interrupted by the embarrassment of reality. It’s Sunday night and I’m sitting in the exact same seat I was in last night. And the night before. And the night before that: the night that I met Templeton Rate.

If I hadn’t returned to The Strangest Feeling.

On Friday night, I stuck my face to the cigarette-stained window, hoping to find him in the diner waiting to buy me that cup of coffee he promised. Okay, I guess he didn’t technically promise, but there was something about this man that I seemed to want to desperately cling to. He wasn’t there, but I went in anyway. I ordered a coffee, and waited for him to follow me in again.

Three days and thirteen cups of coffee later, I realize that Templeton Rate probably isn’t going to show. I also realize that I have a caffeine addiction. What made me think that some rude, insincere guy with filthy hands would plan to show up looking for me? Especially when he’d abandoned me with his bill just three nights before. What made me feel as though I even wanted to see this peculiar individual again? What is it about Templeton Rate that made me wonder what it was that I had been waiting twenty-nine years for?

Kitty’s not working tonight, but that’s fine by me because I’m not here to see Kitty. Although I must admit, I do miss her cheery smile a little.

“I don’t think he’s going to show, honey,” I hear from behind the counter. Her nametag says ‘Sylvie,’ and she pours me another cup of coffee. Which brings my running total to fourteen now.

“Excuse me?” I mumble.

“You’re waiting for some guy, aren’t you?” she asks, with her Boston-thick accent. “Kitty told me there’d be a pretty young blonde in here tonight who’d be waiting for some guy that wasn’t going to show. I’m assuming she meant you.”

I barely spoke two sentences to Kitty the previous three nights, but I guess she knew what was really going on. I’m sure she could sense my desperation. Maybe Sylvie can too. “Is it that obvious?” I ask.

Sylvie is a heavy-set woman, probably in her late forties, and looks as though she’s been here most of her life. There’s something about overweight people that makes me want to place my trust in them. She puts the coffee back on the machine behind her, and then leans in towards me, her giant breasts getting some much-needed support. She has a sparkling hairpin that catches my eye as it pokes out of from under her hairnet; it has what appears to be a Painted Stork (Mycteria leucocephala) design on the end of it.

“You French?” she asks, picking up on the same fading accent of mine that Templeton did.

“French-Canadian actually.”

“What the hell are you doing waiting for some loser out here then? You’re a pretty girl. You can definitely do better than this, can’t you?”

“I’m not sure if I can.” I’m not sure if I have the strength to try and do better than this. Simply being here now seemed like a giant step forward for me. “I just needed a change, I think.”

“Listen to me honey. All I’m saying is that I don’t want to see you sitting here in the same seat thirty years from now, waiting for the same guy that’s never going to show.”

“I appreciate that,” I tell her, even though I didn’t really.

…………

I came to school late one Wednesday. My twelve-year-old sister Madeleine, that pernickety princess, was holed up in the bathroom all morning. Thankfully, she was on her way back to the orphanage that day. Although, I think she presumed that she was off to some fantasy world where the other kids actually cared about what she looked like. I could smell the hairspray through the door. I knew I was going to be late, but I still didn’t want to miss seeing Claude that morning.

I banged abrasively on the door. “I need my bathroom Madeleine!”

“It’s still my bathroom too, bitch,” she growled back at me in her usual pleasant demeanor. She had the charming ability to refer to me as ‘bitch’ in just about any situation, claiming that it was actually a term of endearment. I knew better than this of course, but I’ve never been very good at telling someone they’re wrong.

Late as I was, my mother had the nerve to inform me that she simply must get some of her gardening done. Something about new bulbs that needed to be planted, and according to her gardening bible, it was recommended that they be planted midweek before 9:00 AM for the best results. Because of this vital agricultural predicament, I had to walk Madeleine back to the orphanage that morning on my way to school. I tried to explain how important it was that I didn’t miss my first period gym class, but Mom told me she’d write me a note. Of course, a note for Mrs. Wyatt certainly wouldn’t make up for any missed chance encounter with Claude. This boy had a hold over me that I couldn’t resist. Even at fourteen, I wondered if it was healthy to need someone this way.

I put my mother’s note into my pocket, and headed out the door with Madeleine. It started raining after only a block or so, but I had no intention of going back to get an umbrella and being even more late than I already was. We had never really talked to one another in the short time that I’d known her, but Madeleine nonchalantly asked me questions as though we were the best of friends.

“Do you have a boyfriend?”

I told her no.

“Have you ever kissed a boy before?”

Again, I told her no. And unfortunately, it was the embarrassing truth.

The rain was really starting to come down, but it couldn’t put a stop to Madeleine’s relentless one-sided conversation. “I have a boyfriend at the orphanage,” she said. “His name’s Leo, and we’re going to get married.”

Leo? My brother Leo? Is it okay for my non-literal sister to marry my non-literal brother? I felt really sorry for Leo at that moment.

I wanted to ask her if Leo even knew about this pre-arranged matrimony, but decided not to. Instead, I asked her, “But what if Leo gets adopted Madeleine? What if you two never see each other again?”

“It doesn’t matter, because we’re in love. Maybe we’ll leave the orphanage together one day, and go to some deserted island to spend the rest of our lives. That’s how love works.”

My sympathy for everyone but Madeleine seemed to change right then and there. I looked at this twelve-year-old girl all soaking wet from the morning’s sudden storm, and I started to feel incredibly sad for her. I realized then that Madeleine and all those poor kids at the orphanage didn’t know the first thing about how love really worked. I certainly wasn’t the expert on boyfriends and kissing, but I knew I had the love of my family, and that that would never change. My siblings had next to nothing at that moment in their lives that would still be there in fifteen years. They had to keep those make-believe stories going in their heads just to get though the day. It didn’t seem fair to me. Not for Antonia. Not for Leo. Not even for Madeleine.

If Madeleine had been telling this story, she would have dreamed up a much different, much more positive ending.

We arrived at the orphanage, and I walked Madeleine to the front door where Mr. Martin was waiting for her. He said “hello” to me, and I waved back politely.

Madeleine hesitated before walking to the door. She turned her body back to me, without making eye contact. “Well, thanks for the talk.” It was the first time she’d ever thanked me for anything, not that I had done much to deserve such gratitude. Then she ran in through the front door to rejoin the litter of angels inside.

That was the last time I ever saw Madeleine. Some family from New Brunswick adopted her the following week, and I doubt she ever saw Leo again either.

First period gym was almost over by the time I neared the school. I was completely soaked from the rain, which had since passed, but I hoped to at least catch a glimpse of Claude in the halls between classes. Yet, as I approached the big red doors of Doneau High, impossible as it seemed, I saw him. He was at the flagpole, smoking a cigarette and looking a little misplaced. I walked up to him with a courage I never knew I had, trying to dry myself off as best I could. When he saw me coming he dropped his cigarette and instinctively extinguished it under his boot, even though the puddle beneath him had already done the job.

“Hey,” he said to me.

“What are you doing out here?” I asked. It had occurred to me then that this was the first non-greeting I’d ever spoken to him.

“Waiting for you,” he said timidly, avoiding direct eye contact. He leaned up against the flagpole. “You’re late. Have you got a note from your mother?”

I smiled at him, and produced the folded paper from my pocket. He took it from me and briefly examined it before handing it back. “Your name’s Bella, right?”

Isabelle,” I replied, but I didn’t want Claude to think that I was correcting him. “Or Bella.”

“Listen Bella, these stupid days here just seem a lot easier to take when I see you every morning. I like it when you say hi to me. That’s why I wait for you out here every day. I wait until I see you coming, and then I make it seem as though I’m just arriving too. I know it sounds stupid, but I was wondering if you’d like to meet me after school.”

I couldn’t believe this conversation was happening. My heart was fluttering so fast I thought it was going to burst. I couldn’t wait to tell Cindey.

“So what do you say?” he asked.

And all I could manage to respond with was, “You smoke?”

…………

I pull my eyes out from inside the dried-up empty coffee cup. “It’s weird, you know?” I say to Sylvie.

“How’s that?” she asks as she wipes the counter in front of me.

“He told me he wanted to buy me another cup of coffee. Then he went to the bathroom and never came back. He seemed to just disappear. I’m starting to wonder if he was even here at all.”

“Maybe he wasn’t,” she says ominously.

“Excuse me?”

“I mean, maybe he was a spirit. Like a ghost or an angel or something…”

An angel? I remember when I was younger I heard one of my siblings praying through the wall in my bedroom. He was saying things to angels, but I didn’t know what an angel was. So the next morning I asked my father.

Angels are just like you and me and your mother,” he told me. “They’re regular people that just want to help one another out.

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

“…If you believe in those kinds of things, that is,” Sylvie continues. She finishes wiping the countertop and goes back into the kitchen, leaving me alone to think about it.

If Sylvie had been telling this story, she’d probably have a refreshingly different perspective.

“I don’t know,” I say, shouting over the counter and into the kitchen. “He told me he worked part-time as a doorman. If he was an angel, why would he come to see me?”

She comes back out with a fresh pot of coffee. “There must be a reason, honey. Damned if I knew all the secrets of the universe. But angels are supposed to help sort peoples’ lives out, right? Has your life changed at all since then?”

I watch the coffee as it pours into my cup. The color is fantastic and the hot steam rises slowly between us. This brings my total to fifteen. “I’m drinking coffee now. Do you think it’s possible that an angel visited me in order to make me start drinking coffee?”

“We all need a vice, honey.” Sylvie pours a cup for herself now too.

“I don’t know what it is though. He was rude, intolerable and self-centered, but I feel inexplicably drawn to him.” I remember exactly how Claude had once made me feel. “Like he has some strange, undefined hold over me.”

“Wow,” Sylvie seems to say with a little remorse, “I’d love to feel inexplicably drawn to somebody.”

“It’s not as magical as you might think,” I tell her.

…………

Claude and I met that same day after school. I waited for him at the yellow electrical box behind the gym, just as I promised I would. Of course, we really didn’t know each other very well at all. Our two-minute conversation that morning was the only one we’d ever had up until that point, and thinking about it now, it feels like it was the last one we ever had too.

He came stumbling around the corner, not the least bit surprised that I was really there waiting for him. The nervousness that only two teenagers in just such a scenario can feel was shared between us, and we figured that the best way to overcome it was by making out every day after school on that yellow electrical box. A part of me was disgusted by the cigarette taste of his mouth when we kissed, while another part of me just told myself to take what I could get. I still had no idea how all of this had really come to be anyway. It seemed impossible to me then that something like that could ever happen twice in one lifetime. What are the chances?

It was on a Monday, the fourth afternoon behind the gym, when Claude sat still for a moment after parking himself beside me. His hair was cut a little shorter that day. I wondered if his mother still went to the barber’s with him to get his haircut, or if she did it for him herself. I waited for him to move closer, to kiss me, or to say something. Anything. But maybe he was just waiting for the same from me.

“I like your hair,” I told him, but my words seemed to have little effect. He appeared very nervous, as if trying to find the strength to say whatever it was that was on his mind.

“I need to ask you a question Bella,” he said quietly.

“What is it?” I asked, knowing full well that he must want to ask me to go steady with him. I wanted so badly for Claude to be my first boyfriend, and I was sure he felt the same about me being his girlfriend. He’d probably spent all weekend preparing himself for this moment. All he had to do was ask.

“I need to ask you a question,” he nervously reiterated, “…but not now.” He moved in closer to give me a kiss, and I made no effort to hold back. I desperately wanted to hear him ask me what it was I surely had an answer for already, but instead I gave in to those beautiful pouty lips of his.

I guess he could always ask me tomorrow,” I thought to myself with his tongue in my mouth.

“So what was it that he wanted to ask you?” Cindey Fellowes prodded as we made our way through the hordes of students crowding the halls of Doneau High. This was about two weeks into my relationship with Claude, and he still had yet to ask me the question, which had come to be known officially as ‘The Question’ between Cindey and I. “Maybe he had a math problem or something he wanted you to help him with,” she suggested. “I mean…it’s kinda weird that he would bring it up and never actually follow through with asking you, isn’t it?”

It did seem a little weird. Claude and I were still making out behind the gym every day, so I guess I just assumed he felt we were already an item. Forget such technicalities as actually having to ask me. My only problem with the whole arrangement was that we never did anything else. He had never taken me to a movie, or out for dinner like normal boyfriends did in normal relationships. I had never seen where he lived or met his parents, nor had I ever been offered a ride in his car. He hadn’t yet been absorbed into my life outside of grade ten either.

I made the mistake of telling my parents that I met a nice boy at school named Claude, and that I really liked him. I was even dumb enough to tell them about The Question. Dad assumed he was a drug dealer and wanted to sell me something illegal, while Mom guessed that he wanted to sell me something religious. Both of them, of course, wanted to meet Claude as soon as possible, but that just wasn’t conceivable since I couldn’t seem to get him anywhere further than the yellow electrical box behind the gymnasium.

“What do you kids do every day after school, sweetheart?” Mom would ask, trying not to sound as though she was really asking if I knew what a sexually transmitted disease was.

“I don’t know…” I would tell her. “We just hang out. We study at the library sometimes, and other times we study in the cafeteria.”

“That’s a lot of studying…” Dad would say ambiguously in his best non-ambiguous tone. “I never did that much studying when I was your age.”

I wanted to say “and look where it got you, Dad,” but seeing as how my after-school activities could very possibly lead to eventually working at the paper mill myself, I decided that silence was a much better alternative.

“Well, as long as you can keep those grades up sweetheart, there shouldn’t be a problem with you seeing this boy,” Mom concluded reassuringly. Only to throw in the not-so-subtle “but we do want to meet him,” hint.

My parents always tried to find some sneaky way to get the answers for all of their overbearing questions, but they weren’t going to crack my secret code on this one. They may have found out where the missing mixing bowl went when I was seven, or what exactly had happened to the severed gardening hose, or that Cindey Fellowes and I were actually watching the Learning Channel’s History Of Sex unsupervised on her thirteenth birthday, and not The Breakfast Club, but they weren’t going to get anything from me this time.

So they went to him instead.

Two months of kissing Claude had culminated in my parents showing up completely unannounced after school, and at my locker of all places. They were even devious enough to come by on Valentine’s Day, a day when I was sure to be seeing Claude after school. Dad had signed up on the graveyard shift at work that week in preparation for the day’s big event. How perfect. I was at my locker, unsuspectingly showing Cindey Fellowes the hickey I got from Claude the day before, when her attention suddenly turned to someone behind me. I didn’t even notice Cindey sneak away as I rolled up my turtleneck sweater, and turned to see my parents standing there.

“Is that a rash you’ve got there?” Mom asked me. “Because I’ve got some cream in my purse that would clear that right up.”

I couldn’t answer; I was too freaked out at the sight of my parents silhouetted by the Doneau High Valentine’s Dance poster on the bulletin board behind them.

“Your father will go back to the car and get it, sweetheart. It’s no problem.” She moved in to try and get a closer look with her fingers, but I was too angry to let her. I smacked her hand away.

“What are you guys doing here? There’s no parent/teacher conference today, is there?” I don’t even know how they knew where my locker was.

“Your mother and I were in the neighborhood,” Dad started, “and we thought we’d give you a ride home.” How utterly convenient. I looked at my Degrassi High watch; I had to meet Claude in five minutes!

“We practically live in the neighborhood,” I tell him. “I can walk home, you know. It’s not a problem. Not in the least conceivable way at all.”

“We’re not trying to make a problem sweetheart,” she said. “We just…”

And that’s when Claude made his unexpected and oh-so-untimely appearance. He tapped me on the shoulder, as though we had a big game to prepare for. “Five more minutes Bella,” was all he said before stopping to notice that these weren’t teachers I was talking to. My mother, my father and Claude all took a few long seconds to look each other over. Like the Common Kestrel’s (Falco tinnunculus) piercing stare as it circles the vole before swooping down for the inevitable kill. No one wanted to make the first move.

“Mom, Dad…this is my friend Claude,” I said nervously, beating them all to the punch.

They did their best impression of a mature greeting.

“ ‘Allo,” said Dad.

“Hey,” said Claude.

“Well, hi there sweetheart,” said Mom predictably.

The silence continued for what felt like another minute, as uncomfortable glances and uneasy hand gestures were exchanged. From somewhere around the corner, I could hear a locker door close. It seemed like the only sound in the world right then: the creaking hinge, the metal latch connecting back into place and the slow, reverberating footsteps walking away and fading into silence.

I thought I heard the sound of water dripping slowly from a tap in the girls’ washroom: tiny droplets hitting the pool at the bottom of the sink one after the other, in a perfect rhythm of loneliness.

I blinked once or twice nervously, and I could actually hear my wet eyelids as they slapped together.

All of this until Claude bravely spoke up, “So five minutes, okay?” Then he left, walking away from us, yet still keeping an uncertain gaze on my parents for a moment before turning his head away too.

Dad tried his best to take something positive from this painfully impassive assembly. “He seems very…punctual. How are his grades?”

Mom, however, only had vague warnings to deliver. “That boy will break your heart if you’re not careful Isabelle. He’s far too good-looking to take your relationship seriously.” I could tell she was genuinely concerned because she referred to me as ‘Isabelle,’ and not her usual ‘sweetheart.’ Of course, I knew better because I was in love, and isn’t that how it’s supposed to work?

That’s certainly how Madeleine would have perceived it.

Sometimes I felt that I wanted Claude for no other reason than for making out behind the gym. I also just liked the way the word ‘boyfriend’ sounded. My parents left the whole thing alone from that point on, and we never spoke of Claude again.

And then, one day after school on the yellow electrical box, my relationship with Claude ended. We pulled our lips apart for a second, and he said, “It’s my birthday today, you know?”

I had already made sure that we’d established when each other’s birthdays were at the beginning of our relationship in proper teenage girlfriend fashion. “Yeah, I know,” I said to him. I knew that day was his birthday, and I’d made him a card the night before out of flimsy construction paper that had said in haiku:

A birthday itself

Is not so very special,

Not special at all

It can only be

As special as you are then,

As you are to me

I’m not entirely sure what the words I wrote meant, but it had the right number of syllables and I was proud of the effort I had put into it. I slipped the card into his locker first thing in the morning, before Claude even got to school. He didn’t meet me outside at the flagpole anymore.

“So…?” he asked me, as if waiting for something more.

“So what?” was all I could give him.

“So what do you say?”

I thought about this for a moment. What do I say? I wasn’t entirely sure what he wanted to hear from me. So I gave it my best effort. “Um, good for you…?”

“No. That’s not it.”

“Way to go?”

Still nothing.

“What do you want me to say, Claude?”

“You’re supposed to say happy birthday.”

“I made you a card. I slipped it into your locker this morning. Didn’t you get it?”

“Yeah, I got it. But it didn’t say happy birthday on it.”

“Well, happy birthday then.”

“Thank you.”

He leaned back into position to continue where we left off, but I wasn’t going to leave it at that. He seemed so self-righteous listening to me say exactly what he had wanted to hear. “How old are you?” I asked him.

“Sixteen.” he replied, followed by another attempt to make lip contact.

“No. I mean in terms of maturity. That’s a pretty immature thing to say to me Claude.”

“I would say happy birthday to you on your birthday Bella. I can’t believe you’d be so selfish.”

Selfish?”

He got up, turned to me, and said it: “I don’t think I want to see you anymore.”

If Claude had been telling this story, he wouldn’t have put much thought into it.

Then Claude walked away. He dumped me right then and there, behind the gym and on his birthday no less. Maybe the worst thing about it all was the fact that I’d never learned what it was he was going to ask me. Not only had The Question remained unanswered, it had remained unasked.

…………

“Claude was a foolish kid,” I say to Sylvie, “but I’ve heard it said that the jerks are harder to get over than the good ones.” The bottom of my coffee is nothing more than a mound of sugar. “I’m still waiting for the other half of the equation to find out if that’s true, but it certainly has taken me a long time to forget about him. As embarrassing as that sounds.”

She looks at me the way my mother used to look at me right before saying something profound. “The ones that are easily forgotten are the ones that aren’t worth remembering.” I didn’t notice until now, but Sylvie has already locked the door and turned the outside lights off. The Strangest Feeling was closing up for the night. She gives the counter in front of me one final wipe, and motions to the empty cup in my hands. “Did you want to pay for that now honey, or should I put it on your tab for tomorrow?”

I give her a ten for a night’s worth of coffee, and insist that she keep the change. “Actually, I don’t think I’ll be showing up here tomorrow,” I say. I remove my coat from the stool beside me and slip it on. I wrap my scarf around my neck, take my purse and then I thank Sylvie for the company tonight before heading out the door.

“My name’s Maria,” Sylvie replies.

“What? But your nametag…?”

“Is still at home on my kitchen counter. I borrowed Sylvie’s nametag. Besides, what does a name matter anyway when all I’m doing is standing behind a counter?”

I tell her she’s probably right, and I unlock the door to let myself out.

Sylvie disappears back into the kitchen as I leave The Strangest Feeling with the feeling that I would be all right.

NEXT CHAPTER

Molt – Chapter Three

The Strangest Feeling

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If I hadn’t slept with Professor Nickwelter.

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

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

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

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

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

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

And my answer was the same for all of them:

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

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

If only I had been paying attention that night.

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

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

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

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

Three…Two…One…Zero.

And there he is.

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

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

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

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

So I go in.

If I hadn’t walked inside The Strangest Feeling.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Thanks,” I confirm.

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

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

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

It really is the strangest feeling.

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

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

If I hadn’t been out of my element.

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

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

I take a sip.

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

Another tentative sip.

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

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

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

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

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

“And a coffee?” she asks.

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

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

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

If I hadn’t answered him.

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

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

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

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

“Uh…yeah.” I say. “French-Canadian.”

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

“I said I’m French-Canadian.”

“Is there such a thing?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Strangest coincidence, isn’t it?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And I believed him. Whoops. Sorry world.

If I hadn’t believed a word he said.

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

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

Whatever he wants at all. “Isabelle Donhelle.”

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

“Of course I am,” I say defensively.

“Really?”

“Why wouldn’t I be?”

If I hadn’t told him the truth.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Pardon me?” I ask.

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

“I can answer the first one for you.”

“Go ahead.”

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

“And the rest?”

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

“Do you sleep naked?”

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

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

“That’s right.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But there’s no answer.

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

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

Still no reply.

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

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

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

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

 Our Restrooms Have Been Professionally Sanitized

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

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

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

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

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