Themes

As I (slowly) write my third novel, and try to hone my craft a little more with every sentence, the idea of THEME keeps popping into my head. Buzzing around my brain all the while nagging me to not forget what my point is here. I think with this story, much more so than my previous two, I need to keep my themes evident in everything; every word in every sentence of every chapter must all be leading somewhere, hoping to say something coherent and meaningful.

My third novel (tentatively named “THIS NEVER HAPPENED”) juggles such ideas as Identity, Dreams, Reality, Memory, Happiness, Depression, Purpose, Family and Love. It treads into Boy-Meets-Girl territory. It plays with the reader’s head, making them question what is real and what is not. And before you it, it turns itself over and transforms into a far-fetched and sci-fi laden mystery. Yes, that’s a lot to think about. And it takes a lot of planning and outlining to keep everything on the tracks, heading in the right direction. The key to this? A solid theme, of course. But there’s more to this as well.

A question or two: Do most writers pick one single theme and run with it? Do they keep it loose and not worry too much about whether the reader will identify their theme? Are their books thematic-heavy, impossible to not pick up on it? Is it more common a writer’s work to have multiple themes? Does it sometimes have no theme at all? Does anything go?

Next, I decide to revisit my original synopsis for the book, the hook if you will, hoping my burgeoning ideas for the story will remind me why I’ve chosen to write the story. Here is one of the first things I wrote when I started this project, then tentatively known as “EPOCH”:

Epoch: A black hole collapses and ten thousand years later a baby boy is born. Each event is linked wholly to the other. As the boy grows up he feels as though he doesn’t belong anywhere and he eventually becomes certain he was never meant for this world.

After much deliberation and considering my original hook and dissecting the ideas and chapters I’ve already gotten down, I decide that my main theme is Identity. My main character has never felt like belonged and has always had a difficult time trying to fit in and figure out who he was meant to be. But knowing where this complicated tale is headed, I also want to make Reality a theme. I figure this particular novel is best suited to be heavy on these two themes so how do I start really tying them into the story?

Next, and with a fine-tooth comb, I go through the five full chapters I have so far (roughly 10,000 words) and make sure the idea of Identity is really tied into what my characters say and what my main character thinks (this is a First-Person Narrative). I take a look at all the words and re-think why they’re there and if I could use a better sentence. This is something that will be done again in the editing stage, but by then it will mostly be for grammatical reasons and making sure my exposition reads clearly.

Reality is something that begins to be questioned later in the book, and plays a large role, but it’s the kind of idea that is best used with a smattering of clues, first unnoticeable, then with a light dusting, and finally a full-blown “make the reader question everything that’s happened” scenario. I remind to think about this as I go, but the truth is that with proper outlining the editing stage will help me decide when too much information is being given or if more is needed.

But for now I’ll be saving my document and closing my computer for the night. In bed I’ll think about this more-refined direction and hope that the words will start to flow a bit faster tomorrow.

How about you writers out there? How do you tackle the use of theme in your work?

Molt – Chapter Eighteen

The Glorious Age of Templeton Rate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s absolute chaos.

It’s utterly overwhelming.

It has to be Templeton Rate.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Fuck you,” he replies.

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

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

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

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

“No I don’t. Where’s Templeton?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maybe it’s my fault?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s Isabelle. Let me in.”

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

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

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

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

Like a hiding place.

Like a death trap.

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

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

“Mitchie let us in.”

Mitchie? Who’s Mitchie?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Bella?”

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

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

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

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

“What is it?” I ask him, terrified.

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

“A tool? A tool for what?”

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

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

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

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

Me?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Come with me.”

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

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

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

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

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

“See?” Templeton asks.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Even though they were twice as bad.

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

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

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

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

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

Claude flaps his re-grown wing with enthusiasm.

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

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

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

But I did.

If only Claude had stayed missing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or is it getting worse and worse?

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

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

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

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

“No.”

“But how did—”

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

“No.”

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

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

The glorious age of Templeton Rate.

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

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

“I thought you said Professor Nickwelter killed her?”

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

I hate it when he talks like this.

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

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

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

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

“What book?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One for sorrow, two for mirth,

Three for a funeral, four for a birth,

Five for silver, six for gold,

Seven for a secret not to be told,

Eight for heaven, nine for hell,

And ten for the devil’s own sel’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Professor Nickwelter?

NEXT CHAPTER

Molt – Chapter Twenty-One

Broken Heaven

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Physically or psychologically.

“To change is to evolve,” he says.

Temporarily or permanently.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You mean on the bus that night?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I was doing this for everybody.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I want him to leave me alone.

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

I want him to forget about his broken Heaven.

And I want him to go to Hell.

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

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

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

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

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

Swallowed by the mists of Lake Avernus.

Through the gateway that leads to Hell.

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

NEXT CHAPTER

Molt – Chapter Twenty

Full Circle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I was just making sure.”

“How did you get in here?”

“The same way you did, I suppose.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Not anymore?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That man is absolutely crazy.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But…why would you do all of that?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why not me?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s right,” she sniffs.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I won’t,” I tell her. “I promise.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NEXT CHAPTER

Molt – Chapter Twelve

The Molt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He wouldn’t display false emotion.

He wears his heart on his sleeve.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If he hadn’t made me feel special.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I can change, can’t I?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Greetings, Professor Donhelle,” he says.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s an understatement.”

“You didn’t fuck him too, did you?”

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

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

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

“Really?”

“Well, what do you think?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What? Really?”

“Really.”

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

“It’s true.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What are you doing for Halloween?”

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

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

“What?” I ask.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s correct.”

“By yourself?”

“It’s what I do every year.”

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

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

“Situation? You mean our relationship?”

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

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

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

“Do I need a costume?”

“Have you ever celebrated Halloween before?”

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

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

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

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

“Costumes don’t scare me.”

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

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

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

“Can’t I just be myself?” I ask.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is that worse, I wonder?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nothing.

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

Still nothing. Claude is nowhere to be found.

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

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

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

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

Still nothing.

And still no tears.

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

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

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

If only I’d called my mother back.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

His hands never leave my back.

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

If only I hadn’t believed him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

NEXT CHAPTER

Molt – Chapter Nine

In the Lek

From the field journal of Professor I. Donhelle:

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

………

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 ………

From the field journal of Professor I. Donhelle:

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

 ………

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Is there a point to your story?”

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

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

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

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

 ………

From the field journal of Professor I. Donhelle:

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

 ………

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

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

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

“I’m afraid that’s too personal.”

“You fucked him, didn’t you?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

 ………

From the field journal of Professor I. Donhelle:

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

………

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

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

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

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

No it’s not Templeton Rate. You are.

If I hadn’t stayed there believing his lies.

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

 ………

From the field journal of Professor I. Donhelle:

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

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

………

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

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

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

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

 ………

From the field journal of Professor I. Donhelle:

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

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

 ………

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

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

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

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

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

Formally and informally, my class was officially over.

NEXT CHAPTER