Molt – Chapter Six

Unnecessary E’s

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

…………

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

If I wasn’t rejected from the basketball team.

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

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

…………

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

…………

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If I hadn’t met Cindey Fellowes.

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

…………

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Even Claude clucks his tongue in disappointment.

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

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

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

DONALD DUCK’S MIDDLE NAME IS FAUNTLEROY.

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

My jaw drops. How can this be?

“Templeton Rate?”

NEXT CHAPTER

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Molt – Chapter Four

Two Months of Kissing Claude

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

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

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

…………

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

If I hadn’t returned to The Strangest Feeling.

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

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

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

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

“Excuse me?” I mumble.

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

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

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

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

“French-Canadian actually.”

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

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

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

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

…………

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

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

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

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

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

“Do you have a boyfriend?”

I told her no.

“Have you ever kissed a boy before?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hey,” he said to me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So what do you say?” he asked.

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

…………

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

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

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

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

“Excuse me?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

…………

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So they went to him instead.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They did their best impression of a mature greeting.

“ ‘Allo,” said Dad.

“Hey,” said Claude.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s certainly how Madeleine would have perceived it.

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

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

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

A birthday itself

Is not so very special,

Not special at all

It can only be

As special as you are then,

As you are to me

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

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

“So what?” was all I could give him.

“So what do you say?”

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

“No. That’s not it.”

“Way to go?”

Still nothing.

“What do you want me to say, Claude?”

“You’re supposed to say happy birthday.”

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

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

“Well, happy birthday then.”

“Thank you.”

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

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

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

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

Selfish?”

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

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

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

…………

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

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

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

“My name’s Maria,” Sylvie replies.

“What? But your nametag…?”

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

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

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

NEXT CHAPTER

Molt – Chapter Two

Litter of Angels

ISABELLE ROCHELLE DONHELLE. If you can believe it, that’s really my name. My parents absolutely adore it, and not surprisingly, I detest it. I’ve always considered it to be the creatively bland and tragically comedic outcome of my parents’ painfully oblivious concoction. I prefer to go by ‘Bella,’ but even that is an uncomfortable stretch for me. I know what you’re thinking though: “why doesn’t she just change it?” Well, that’s just what the problem here is, isn’t it?

My parents have always been proud of me, and I was almost proud of myself too until about a week ago. It’s funny how self-esteem can take a nosedive so quickly, when given the right opportunities. And even though things have gone about as downhill as they can, I’ll bet my parents would still be proud of me right now. From the outside, most people would probably call it unconditional love; from where I’ve been standing for most of my life, I’d just call them nuts. The kind of nuts you want to avoid like an allergic reaction.

If my parents had been telling this story, instead of me, they’d probably be proud of it too.

The Donhelles live in the small town of Ville Constance. That’s in northern Quebec. Ville Constance’s origins are believed to be tied to Saint Constantina, but all indications point to its literal meaning, ‘Constant City,’ as being a far more accurate interpretation of its history. Nothing ever seemed to change much in Ville Constance.

My father worked at the local paper mill, along with most of the other fathers in town. He worked hard and tirelessly to put food on our table. Mom didn’t work; she cleaned the house and cooked all day. Every day. I’d be willing to bet that our house was the cleanest house in all of Quebec, maybe even in all of Canada. There was always the aroma of food in our home, but the smell of warm pastries, soups and meatloaf was vastly overpowered by the smell of cleaning products. When Mom took another pie out of the oven, no one could tell if it was apple, blueberry, lemon, rose or pine.

She was never diagnosed, but my mother was an obvious obsessive-compulsive. One of the most traumatic events I can remember from my childhood was the day I placed my glass of orange juice on the coffee table without setting the cork coaster down first. She totally freaked out. To this day, I cannot bring myself to put anything on any coffee tables for fear of something ruining the finish. I don’t remember losing my first tooth, or getting my first ‘A’ in school, but I certainly remember The Great Coaster Incident.

They might sound a touch cliché, but those were my parents. The stern, burly father who works assiduously in the factory sixty hours a week, and comes home to find his pipe, slippers and daily sports page waiting for him beside his favorite chair. The happy little homemaker who makes her kid tuna fish sandwiches for school lunches, takes all the drapes down three times a week for a thorough cleaning and is never seen in the kitchen without her trademark pink apron on. The one with the word ‘MOM’ stitched right on the front. I certainly didn’t notice any of their faults when I was a kid; I loved them no matter what. I still love them today, but those annoying habits and eccentricities that went unnoticed when I was twelve-years-old have flared up to near-horrific proportions. We’re talking Mothra-like magnitude.

It’s as though I could stick my hand into a hat filled with quirks, foibles and idiosyncrasies, and Mom and Dad could match any one I drew. Here we go: Dad, you get incessant throat-clearing, involuntary use of the speaking voice while reading and complete unawareness of anyone within twenty feet of you during a hockey game; and Mom, you get washing the floors at three AM, spying on the neighbors at night from the second floor with the lights off and the ability to refer to anybody as ‘sweetheart.’ Anybody at all. The paperboy. Her gynecologist. Even the Prime Minister when she met him once. And here, you two can fight over unnatural flatulence.

As far as brothers and sisters went, I could never keep track. You see, there was an orphanage just down the street from us, and they were constantly running out of space for the children. So the orphanage struck a deal with my parents, and Mom and Dad took one or two of the kids off their hands for days, weeks or even months at a time. And just so the children didn’t get the feeling that they had it better than any of the others, the orphanage took them back in, and gave us another one. This exchange happened every week or so. I imagine that it couldn’t have been too good for the well being of the kids, but they seemed to like coming to the Donhelle home, even if it was only for a day or two. And nobody else asked any questions or ever showed much concern over the entire situation. In the time that I lived at home, I must have seen three hundred different children sleeping in the spare room next to mine. Three hundred different siblings sitting across from me at the dinner table. Three hundred different brothers and sisters stinking up the bathroom in the morning before I left for school.

For a while I thought that maybe I was just another orphan myself, the one kid that the orphanage didn’t want back. I presumed that my parents kept up the whole ‘child intern’ cover in order to make me feel special. Of course, whenever I thought of this scenario, it only ever made me feel worse about myself. Was I really an only child, or was I just one more from the litter of angels?

If I hadn’t been an only child.

I did form some close bonds with a small number of the kids we looked after. I even did what I could to find families for them. I put up posters on telephone poles and at school on the wanted board. I made flyers that I delivered to random houses, apartment buildings and local businesses, hoping that someone out there would consider something that they might not have otherwise thought about. I included hand-drawn pictures and biographies of some of my favorites in an effort that they might be chosen. However, some of them unintentionally started to sound like ads for used cars:

“Annie. A radiant little six-year old who loves pancakes and soda crackers. She’ll warm your home and melt your heart. Just passed her check-up.”

“Daniel. Nine years of age. Sporty. Enjoys bedtime stories and baseball. Speaks with fluent Sir’s and Maam’s. Claustrophobic. Has a small scar on his forehead, but no serious damage.”

“Looking for a new owner: Monique. Dark-skin with green eyes. Eight years old, and still runs like new. Very quiet, clean, reliable. Pigtails are optional.”

Daniel and Annie had subsequently been snatched up by brand-new loving parents, but poor Monique was still there when I left home for university. Honestly, I don’t know which kids were happier though; the ones that eventually left the orphanage or the ones that stayed there. And I don’t know which ones I was happier for.

The one kid in particular that I can still remember quite clearly is Antonia. A chubby little girl who had nowhere else in the world she’d rather be than at the Donhelle house. She was actually taken in by my parents dozens of times, which was unusual since I only saw any of my siblings two or three times in my life.

I remember one time when Antonia had come upstairs to unload her bag in the spare bedroom. She was crying, but this was the usual routine with her. There was always some kind of problem with Antonia.

If Antonia had been telling this story, she’d only have cried about it.

I asked her, “What’s wrong now Antonia?”

“Ostrich,” she said to me.

“Pardon?”

“They call me Ostrich at the orphanage.” She sat on the bed and wiped the tears from her mouth so she could speak without slurring. “Everyone gets a nickname they said, so I’m Ostrich.”

I sat down next to her. We’d had these kinds of talks before. The last time she cried was because Tommy Hamil told her that food had gone missing from the orphanage. My brother Tommy accused my sister Antonia of stealing the food and hiding it in her pillowcase for a late-night snack.

“Ostrich isn’t so bad,” I told her.

“Michel Bourdon said that the ostrich is the fattest of all birds. That’s why it can’t fly. Just like me.”

Michel Bourdon? He was here just last week, sleeping in this very bed, I thought to myself. “Have you ever seen Michel Bourdon fly, Antonia?” I asked her. A line of drool dripped from the crease of her mouth onto the bed sheet. My mental countdown had started; I knew Mom would have the sheets changed and put into the wash in less than ten minutes.

“No.” Antonia looked up at me, wide-eyed, as if just realizing something important. She had a habit of always believing the very last thing anyone ever said to her. So I fed her another one.

“What’s his nickname?” I asked.

A bubble of saliva popped from her lips. “Pipes.”

Seriously? Pipes? Was this an orphanage or the mafia? “Well, you just tell Michel that a pipe can’t do anything but sit and rust, okay?” That probably wasn’t the best line I could’ve fed her, but it was quite likely she’d just forget it anyway. “Okay Antonia?”

“Yeah, okay,” she said, her eyes lighting up with delight. Running to leave the room, Antonia turned back to me to double check her facts. “Pipes can’t fly either, right?”

“I’ve never seen one fly,” I told her.

She giggled a little to herself, and dashed out into the hallway and down the stairs. It took me a few minutes before I could pull myself off that bed. I wondered how many lies Antonia must have had to believe to get through just one day at that orphanage. And how many lies I would have to tell her just to keep her there; to keep her as far away as possible from the world outside that I knew she wouldn’t ever be able to handle on her own. To keep her inside the safest nest I could find. There couldn’t possibly be a better place for her than that.

Antonia would never be willing to change. I knew that. As much as I would have liked her to, I realized then the truth was that some people were willing to change, and some people weren’t. It’s as simple as that. I never told Antonia how I really felt, because I knew deep down she really just wanted to belong. And what kind of big sister would I have been if I had ever denied her of those dreams?

NEXT CHAPTER

Molt – Chapter One

I Blame Mrs. Wyatt

HE TOLD ME I’d be safe in here.

He said this was the one place in the city that I could be if I wanted to stay the way I wanted to stay.

This was my only hope for a last chance.

He called it my last chance at death.

Whatever it was I thought he meant at the time, I’m sure I’d seen it the other way around. But as the air slowly diminishes and the darkness seems to turn back to light, I’m beginning to rethink my original point of view.

I feel around me again just to make sure there’s no crease of a door that I’ve missed. Or an overlooked latch. A loose floorboard to crawl under and make my escape. Maybe even an emergency axe or a doorknob.

But still I find nothing.

There’s a chill in the air that seems to become colder with every frightened breath I take. My left arm is killing me. There’s a pain in my lower back that I didn’t feel before. I want to check for a bruise, but I know it wouldn’t matter even if I could see anything.

This can’t be where I’m going to die. I haven’t lived all this life of mine only to have it come to a sudden, shadowy end.

Life? That’s a funny word for it, now that I think about it. An odd choice, since I feel as though I‘ve barely even lived yet.

My memory skips back to the time when that fortuneteller had told me I would die one day. That old wrinkly French woman had asked me if I’d like to know the details; if I’d like to know how my end would come. Who wouldn’t? So like any curiously anxious teenager would say in that same situation, I was stupid and told her yes. I said, “Yes, tell me everything.” And the old woman proceeded to tell me that I would die somewhere up higher than I’d ever think was possible. Higher than any mountain I’d ever know. So high I may as well have been in Heaven. I would be able to see the clouds below me.

There were no crystal balls, tarot decks, tealeaves or lifelines. I was instructed to stand on the obituary section of the ‘Ville Constance Weekend Edition’ beneath the blue-and-gold track lighting as the gypsy ran her thin, shriveled finger along a crack in the wall of her small apartment. I thought it was all a bit strange, but my best friend, Cindey Fellowes, had recommended her to me. As I stood there, shaky and sweating and contemplating my ultimate demise, the fortuneteller told me not to worry about it because, more than anything else, my death would be something important.

“Aren’t they all important?” I asked, as one of her twenty-seven cats started to claw at my leg warmers.

She just winked and held out her wrinkled hand. I gave her a ten and didn’t think much at all about that entire experience until now.

Now it’s sixteen years later and I’m trapped inside this airless deathtrap. Part of me is thankful that I’m not high up in the mountains right now, while another part is wondering what possessed me to ever wear those leg warmers.

I slump back down to the floor. I can’t hear a thing outside of these heavy walls. I can only hear what’s inside; it’s my heartbeat trying to give up on me. But I won’t let it. Not when there’s still a chance.

I’ve seen this vault before, but from the outside, so I know there’s a door here somewhere. The trouble is I have no idea which direction I’m facing, and I’m sure that the complete lack of light will make it far easier for me to find myself going crazy in here before I find a way out. I don’t even know how long I’ve been inside this thing; I’ve been conscious for what seems like twenty minutes, but it could just as easily be an hour or more. As I worry about how much time I might have left, I’m still finding myself a bit envious of how much space is in this vault. Considering the size of my one-bedroom apartment, that is.

“Forty-five hundred cubic feet would allow for about five-and-a-half hours of air,” is what he told me when I had inquired about this metal box. But did he mean five-and-a-half hours for the both of us, or just one? I hate myself for even worrying about details I don’t understand. I find myself hoping that an end might come sooner, rather than later.

How will I know when the end is coming? I guess my ability to form coherent thoughts will be a good basis. The less of this perverse tale I can recollect, the closer I’ll be to not having to worry about it anymore.

I stop myself for a second and wonder, is this a good thing?

The last I can remember, I was trying to prevent a disaster. The details of which are still a little unclear to me, but I know for sure this wasn’t some ‘spill-the-grape-juice-on-Mom’s-new-sofa’ kind of disaster. This was an ‘end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it-and-I-don’t-feel-particularly-good-about-it’ kind of disaster. Those ones usually don’t go over too well with anybody, and I’m positive this would be no different.

I feel the cold metal floor once again with the sweaty palm of my hand. It’s hard to explain, but some strange appreciation for this floor comes over me. Like something that’s been taken for granted. The sharp pain in my back stings as I take a seat on the hard surface. But it’s too much to take, so I stand up again. I stretch my back and pace the room, trying not to walk face-first into any unseen walls.

So what exactly has happened out there since I’ve been unconscious? One of two things I imagine:

Either, A) nothing. Or, B) I’m the last person in this godforsaken city that can still appreciate cold metal floors. What I mean by that is fairly easy to comprehend if your mind can shut off its ability to use any sort of reasonable logic. My mind was finally starting to, and that’s why I’m in here now. Of course, at the time it didn’t seem as though I would be getting in quite as deep as I’ve gotten, but that’s how trouble usually comes about; when it’s the last thing you’re expecting.

If I hadn’t believed his lies.

I reach my arm out to get a sense of where the wall is, and that’s when I feel it. The slight crease of a well-sealed door. I wonder how I had ever missed it before as I run my fingernail along the indentation. The nail breaks off, yet I barely even notice because of how much pain I’m already in. I use another finger only to break another nail. I stretch up as high as I can, but I can’t feel where the top of the door might be. Almost entirely beyond my reach is some kind of control panel, perhaps an emergency lock. It’s too high to feel any buttons, if indeed there are any. Frustrated, I bang on the wall with my fist, and I try my best to curse the man responsible for all of this. That no-good twit.

As aggravated as I am about this whole unbelievably rotten situation, that someone so awful could ever do something so selfish and perfectly immoral, I’m more annoyed by the fact that I just referred to him a ‘twit.’ He laughed at me whenever I attempted to insult someone, claiming my choice of words were always ‘charmingly derogative.’ Well, I can’t help the fact that I was raised properly. He even asked me one time to make my last words the most appalling words I could think of at the moment, and to scream these profanities as loud as I could the instant before I died.
“I’ll try to remember that when it happens,” was what I told him.

It’s a good thing I thought of that just now, since I might get my big break before long.

If I hadn’t been so lonely.

I jump up a few times and stab at the panel with my hand, but I can’t feel anything within my reach. I’ve been told a number of times that I’m a really bad jumper. A bad jumper? How can anyone be a bad jumper? Mrs. Wyatt, my high school gym teacher, informed me that I was the worst jumper she’d ever seen. I was the only girl to ever be rejected from the basketball team. I wasn’t even cut; I was flat-out rejected. She insisted that I wasn’t too short, but that I simply couldn’t jump.

“I guess my feet don’t like leaving the ground very much,” is what I told her.

It’s strange how many times an excuse as ambiguous as that can occur in one lifetime; I think I said it again just a few days ago.

I use up what feels like the remainder of my strength to bang on the door, generating barely even an echo. But I can’t tell if it’s simply because my hearing is off, if this ringing in my head is making the whole world seem smaller than it is. What the stink is going on out there? My left arm is really hurting now. I think I might have done some serious damage to it.

I crash back to the floor, this time lying on my side. I want to blame someone other than myself for being stuck where I am now. So I blame Mrs. Wyatt. This is what I always do; it’s kind of my thing. I link chains of events in my life to one another in order to find exactly where the critical point lies. Let me explain: I wouldn’t be here now if I hadn’t been hit by that car. I wouldn’t have been hit by that car if I hadn’t come back to Boston. I wouldn’t have returned to Boston if I hadn’t ever slept with one of my students. I wouldn’t have met this particular student if I wasn’t teaching at the university. I wouldn’t hold my position at Hawthorne University if I hadn’t been involved with Professor Nickwelter. I never would have met Nickwelter if I hadn’t been accepted to Hawthorne. I wouldn’t have been at Hawthorne if I hadn’t joined the high school science club. I wouldn’t have joined the science club if I had never met Cindey Fellowes. And I doubt I would have ever met Cindey Fellowes if Mrs. Wyatt had just let me join the basketball team in the first place.

And that’s how I can blame her for my being here right now.

With one ear to the floor, I listen carefully for any signs of life.

Nothing.

There isn’t anything I want more right now than to get out of this deathtrap, but even if I could snap my fingers and appear on the other side of the door, I don’t know I’d really want to see what’s out there. What is out there, I wonder?

Maybe nothing.

Maybe everything.

Am I willing to take that chance? Am I willing to face him again? The only alternative here is starting to sound reasonable: death over life. It’s a much harder decision to make when you’re actually given the ability to make it.
But did I already make the choice?

Or am I still waiting for one final opportunity?

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