“WHAT ARE YOU doing here Professor?” I ask him.
But the man doesn’t have an immediate answer for me. He sits up on my bed, and wipes the sleep from his eyes. I’m a little bit jealous that he has gotten to sleep in spite of the racket outside.
“You know they’re looking for you, don’t you?”
“They? The police?” he asks, slowly regaining his senses. “Of course they are. God, they…they think I killed that poor girl.”
“I know. I was questioned by some detective last week.” The curtains are already shut, and I make sure they’re just a bit tighter. Outside, I hear police sirens blare. But it’s only a Nightingale (Luscinia megarhynchos) making me feel as though I’ve done something wrong.
“And what did you tell him?” he asks me.
In my heart I know that this man isn’t dangerous, although I can’t help but shiver a little when I think of the last conversation we had. When we were in his office, and he told me that he would do anything to have his old job back. My job. At the time, his words scared me a little; as though it was some kind of threat. But there’s no way Professor Nickwelter could ever be capable of committing the crime the police say he’s guilty of? So I tell him exactly what I told Detective Dunphey: “I told him you couldn’t have possibly done it.” I sit down next to him on my bed, but then I get a feeling that maybe I shouldn’t have. “Wait. You didn’t do it, did you?” I ask, moving a little closer to the end of the bed. My clammy hands clutching the bedpost as tightly as they can.
“Christ, how long have you known me Isabelle? Of course there’s no way I could perpetrate something so awful.”
Outside, I hear a violin. But it’s only a Piping Plover (Charadrius melodus), forcing my pity upon him.
“No, of course not.” I can hardly believe I asked him a question like that. “I’m sorry.”
“I could never do something that horrible,” he reiterates.
I try my best to change the subject, but changing subjects has never been one of my strong suits. “I always had a feeling you were fooling around with more of your students. I knew I could never be more to you than just a way to kill some free time.” I know I shouldn’t have uttered the word kill, but I suppose it was the most appropriate word. Nickwelter doesn’t seem to have noticed though; he continues to sit on my bed with his face in his hands.
“How long have you been here?” I ask him. “And how did you get in?”
“There’s a pipe outside. I just shimmied up, and grabbed on to your fire escape. You really should get a better security system back there, you know?”
Tell me about it.
“I don’t know how long I’ve been here though,” he continues. “Two days maybe? Three? I can’t seem to keep track of my time very well anymore.” His focus is fading. This man seems totally consumed by something right now. Something big enough, something important enough that even such mundane details as calendar dates are now completely insignificant to him.
“You probably shouldn’t tell the police that, should they ever ask you.” I can’t help it, but tears begin to well up in my eyes. I wipe my cheek with the palm of my hand. “How did all of this happen, Professor? How did everything go so wrong, so fast? We were all out for dinner a month ago, and I was sitting there agonizing about why my life had seemed so boringly stagnant. But now? That one night out seems like a lifetime ago. Everything has changed since then.”
Outside, I hear a bell chiming ominously. But it’s only a Moluccan Cockatoo (Cacatua moluccensis), making me wonder how I could’ve wrecked my life so badly in just one month.
“I’ll tell you what happened,” he says quietly, turning back towards me now. “It was Templeton Rate that changed everything.”
It really is that obvious, isn’t it?
If only I hadn’t left the restaurant on my own that night.
I confess to him, “That was the night I first met him, you know? It was on my birthday.”
“I know Bella. He followed you from Café d’Averno onto the bus.”
I never told anyone what had happened that night. The night I’d finally decided to change. The night that my own molt had begun. “How do you know that?”
“He told me so himself.”
“You spoke with Templeton? When?”
“A couple of times. But listen to me Isabelle; you need to stop all of this. Stop interfering and just leave it alone.”
“Interfering? Interfering with what?” Suddenly from outside, I hear the deafening crash of a train derailment. There’s the unmistakable sound of shattering glass and twisting metal that can’t possibly be more than a block away. But I’m pretty sure it’s only more lyrebirds driving me ever closer to my breaking point. I have to speak up over the reverberation off the alley walls. “Do you have any idea what’s going on in this city right now?” I ask, even though it’s more than obvious.
“Of course I do,” he tells me. “How could anyone ignore all of this madness?”
“Well, you seemed to be sleeping fairly well five minutes ago.”
“I suppose I just got used to it all. I imagine everyone will eventually.”
We sit on my bed together, probably another minute without any words between us. Nickwelter seems to know something more about what’s going on here. I want to ask him about Templeton. I want some kind of explanation for all of this. I want him to tell me the truth. But I worry that all I’ll hear him say is that he still loves me. I think there just might be a limit to the amount of truths I can handle at this point.
“Listen to me Isabelle,” he begins. “I discovered some things about Templeton Rate that I wasn’t supposed to. Okay, I admit that I disliked him from the start; I was jealous of your relationship with him. I wanted to find his secrets, whatever I thought they might have been at the time, in order to make you hate him as much as I did.”
“Professor…I’m so tired. I don’t think – ”
“No. You need to listen to me. I found out the truth about him Isabelle. And it was the truth that killed that poor girl.”
I try to speak again, “I don’t know if I can – ” I’m not even certain what it is that I’m trying to tell him, but I only get so far anyway.
“Isabelle, he was never enrolled at the university. That’s why nobody at Hawthorne knew who he was. That’s why he seemed to just appear out of nowhere.”
If I hadn’t agreed to go to Salem on Halloween with him.
“He doesn’t work as a doorman. There’s no hotel in Boston that’s ever heard of him!”
If I hadn’t woken up in his apartment that morning.
“And he wasn’t born in Schenectady. All those things you’d told me about him aren’t even true. He’s lied to you and everyone else.”
If I hadn’t waited for him in the library.
“Isabelle, he’s not who he claims to be.”
“What are you saying?”
“There is no Templeton Rate. There never was.”
What better way to forget a memory then to start with a name?
“I know it sounds made up,” Templeton had told me that first night. “But that’s really my name.”
If I hadn’t gone into The Strangest Feeling.
“Then who is he? I know I’m not imagining things. I may feel like it, but I know I haven’t lost my mind.”
“I don’t know who he is. But the day after I asked him that very question was the day that Becky Chandler was killed.”
“Are you serious? I’ve been dating a murderer, is that what you’re telling me? Professor, how am I supposed to believe any of this? This is crazy!”
“I know it sounds extreme, but I’m only telling you this because I’m worried about you Bella. Because I don’t want to see you get hurt. Is that so bad?” I can feel the words coming that I know I don’t want to hear. I can sense them on the tip of his tongue and within his quivering hands. “Is it really so horrible to still be in love with you Isabelle?” And there they are.
If only I’d ended this conversation two minutes ago; if I’d never kissed him that first time in Cape Cod, none of these feelings would even exist. And we could be sitting here now trying to help each other, rather than feeling awkward about the whole mess.
If I hadn’t been rejected from the high school basketball team.
“Don’t do this Professor. I can’t go through this again.”
He sniffs at the air, smelling the smoke that still lingers in my apartment. “What’s that smell?” The thought of another cigarette may just be the only thing that keeps me from saying something much too awful to him right now. I cough a little just imagining it. “Were you smoking Bella?”
“I guess I’ve got habits just as bad as yours now Professor.”
“Christ,” he says, with a beleaguered look in his eye. “I feel like I know everything there is to know about you Bella, and then sometimes I feel like you’re someone else entirely.”
I remove the lighter from my pocket. Reaching across him, I take a cigarette from my bedside table. Like a Blue Jay (Cyanocitta cristata) will bury its acorns in the ground many months in advance, I suppose I’ve been hiding these all over my apartment. I don’t know what else to say to him, so I share the nightmare I was having only a few minutes ago. “I was having a dream just now.” I light up the cigarette, and take a puff. “The whole world had changed without me: everybody was everything I ever wanted to be. But I was still just me, and I was all alone.” I cough again, and the smoke mocks me, as it seems to take a bird-like form. “But I have changed. And I’ve always needed to change, but now that it’s actually happened, it scares me more than any nightmare ever could. I have no idea what this thing is that I’ve become.”
There’s a silence between us that is at once comforting but also completely uncertain. I know Nickwelter well enough to know that he’s stumbling to find the right words to say to me. He opens the drawer and removes a cigarette for himself. I pass him the lighter; the lighter only Claude and I had shared until now.
“It does feel good,” he says to me, tasting the cigarette in his mouth, “reverting back to something we once were.”
The two of us sit on my bed, blowing smoke in lonely unison.
“I want to show you something,” I say to him, slowly peeling myself off the bed and walking into the living room. I return to the bedroom with the journal in my hand. Passing it to him, I say that according to Templeton, the book is supposed to contain all the answers I would need. But I have my suspicions that nothing could ever be so absolute.
Paging slowly through the journal however, it seems as though Nickwelter may already be familiar with some of its contents. He turns to me, and through the translucency of the smoke, I see bewilderment in his eyes. “This book belonged to Nelson Hatch, didn’t it? Where did you find this?”
“Templeton gave it to me,” I tell him. “Well, actually it’s more like I stole it. I think he found it inside Hatch’s house in Salem before burning it to the ground.”
He extinguishes his cigarette into the wood of my bedside table, and flips fervently through more of the journal. He stops when he comes to the very same drawing I had stopped at. The pig with the eagle’s wings.
And then he speaks, although mostly to himself it seems, as I have no idea what he’s talking about. “ ‘As Gregor Samsa woke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself in his bed, transformed into a monstrous insect.’ ”
“It’s from The Metamorphosis. Kafka. I thought it seemed appropriate. But maybe I was wrong.”
He usually is. I hear Claude in my living room, rattling his beak across the cage bars. “Templeton fixed Claude’s wing,” I say to him. “Did you know that? The wing that you amputated years ago has grown back.”
Nickwelter turns away from the journal, looking at me exclusively now. “What? But then that would mean…”
It means this is the glorious age of Templeton Rate.
“It’s a miracle.” I tell him. “It means that Templeton’s a genius. And he’s capable of more than that.”
“Yes. It’s all in here,” he says, redirecting his attention back to the book in his lap, and flipping through more of the pages. “I’ve heard stories before about the journals of Nelson Hatch. Since before your time, professors at Hawthorne University have been discussing them in secrecy, and contemplating what his science might’ve meant for the world.” He turns to one of the last pages in the old, dusty journal, and his jaw drops at whatever it is that he sees. I only catch a glimpse of it before he closes the book for good.
Maybe I’m not understanding the impact of everything. Maybe there’s still some small detail I’m overlooking. It probably would be completely over my head anyway. “It’s like I’m standing in the middle of a place I’ve never been before,” I tell him, this man I used to love. I’m doing the best I can to try and explain these thoughts and feelings that are flying through my head at four hundred miles-an-hour. “How do I just go back to where I was before all of this madness began?”
But of course he doesn’t understand my feelings. “Do you mean with me?” He never understood the feelings of Isabelle Donhelle.
“Not with you. We’ve tried that before and that didn’t work either.”
He turns back to the closed journal in his lap, rejected again. “I suppose I’ve never really understood what you wanted Isabelle.”
I ignore him completely, and continue along the path my thoughts were taking me. “What I mean is, in an effort to make the right choices for myself, have I made one too many mistakes?” I hate Templeton Rate. A part of me wants nothing more than to slap him across the face for lying to me all this time, and yet another part of me still wants to defend him from my own selfish thoughts. To preserve his genius. Even after all of this. Because maybe this part of me still loves him too.
Claude’s rattling becomes more furious, but I know he’s just excited to be back home. This is his way of readjusting to familiar territory.
“Isabelle, Templeton is dangerous. But as much as I despise the man, this is all much bigger than him. I didn’t know it before now, but there’s so much more at stake here than your bird’s wing or Hawthorne University. It’s so much more than that racket outside. Or even my being here right now.”
“What’s all of that supposed to mean?”
“My point is that…well, we all make mistakes in our lives. And usually there’s never anything you can do to fix all the mistakes that you’ve made along the way. But if you have that chance, you take it. I should have left Beth when the decision was an obvious one, but now it’s so much more complicated. I didn’t understand all of it myself at the time, but now I know what Templeton Rate is capable of.”
I know Templeton much better than he does, at least I think I do anyway, but even I don’t know everything he’s capable of.
It looks like maybe the flamingo has gotten the better of me.
“It was Nelson Hatch,” he says, shaking the book with one hand, indicating that the truth really was within those pages after all. “He was the key to all of this.”
I reach out, and take the journal from his hand. I flip through the pages again, looking for answers within text that seems to contain nothing more than questions.
Page by page, new images unfold before me. I read some of what I’d only skimmed through before now. And I only need to see the one diagram on the last page before I really do know the truth. Before I truly realize that this molt may not be finished quite yet.
If Nelson Hatch’s journal had been telling this story, it would be giving away the ending.
It seems impossible. Like fourteen seconds for a chicken.
Outside, I hear a woman screaming. But it’s only a rooster, beating me to the punch. From my living room, Claude’s beak continues to rattle along the metal bars. But the rattling echo becomes deeper, louder. It’s not Claude doing all of the work anymore. I stand up now, and I grip the book in my hands a little bit tighter. The first thing that comes to my mind is the fire escape outside my window. The same way Templeton came into my apartment. The way Nickwelter came inside. The way Jerry Humphries probably got in too. The sweat on my palm makes the book feel slippery. I want to peek around the corner, but I don’t know if I have anything left in me to endure being scared anymore. I tell myself that it could just as easily be another superb lyrebird making the racket instead.
It doesn’t seem as though Nickwelter is hearing the clatter outside; he’s far too engrossed in the discoveries he’s made. “Isabelle, Nelson Hatch was on to something unimaginable, and it looks as though Templeton knew about it. Maybe he is a genius.”
“Professor?” I ask, without really asking a question.
He doesn’t hear me. He doesn’t sense my concern. But he does say possibly the only thing that could scare me even more at this moment. “Templeton Rate could very well save us all!”
I don’t even let the words sink into my head before I interrupt his thoughts for good. “Professor! I think someone is here.”
“I think somebody is coming up the fire escape.” The rattling continues for a bit, and then stops suddenly with a loud metal clank. Like somebody has landed heavily on the balcony outside my window.
“We’ve got to get out of here Bella!”
It’s quiet now. If I clenched this book any tighter, surely it would break apart in the vice-like grip of my sweaty hand.
Peering around the corner and into my living room, I see them. Two shadowy black silhouettes outside on my fire escape, gazing back at me. I want to take Claude from his cage, but there’s not enough time. Something tells me that it’s not Templeton, but whoever these men are, and for whatever reason they’re here exactly, all I know is that I need to get out of my apartment before I become the next Becky Chandler.
Nickwelter is already at my front door, urging me to follow him. “I have to get Claude,” I yell at him.
“There’s no time for that Isabelle,” he says. “We need to leave. Now!”
One of the men outside taps on the window with something hard and heavy. I get a chill when I see the metallic glint of a gun in his hand. But I don’t want to leave my bird behind. Hasn’t he gone through enough already? “I’ll come back for you Claude,” I say, and I hope he believes me. But birds don’t know promises, and they’ll never hold you to them.
I turn back to Nickwelter, standing in the open doorway, and there must be some kind of look in my eyes that’s powerful enough to make him change his mind. He runs across the living room, towards the birdcage. I think it’s maybe because he really does love me. And who knows, maybe he always had but I couldn’t see it until now?
One of the men says something, but I can’t make out the muffled words through the glass.
They try to slide the window open, but it won’t budge, probably due to the icy cold. They don’t waste another second before kicking it in. I hear the breaking glass, but I’m already running out the door.
Nickwelter tells me to keep running. I don’t even look back at him, and I hate myself for it. With the journal and a cigarette still in my hands, I run out into the hallway in my socks. I’m already down the first flight of stairs when I hear a gunshot. It’s definitely not coming from the lyrebird. And then I hear another one, and what sounds like a body hitting the floor of my living room. I can’t imagine any bird could replicate such a particular combination of sounds.
Once in the lobby, I figure I can either exit through the front onto Newbury Street, or I can head out the back door and into the alley where my car is parked. I consider for a moment that should get into my car and leave everything behind. I could forget about all of this and drive back up north to Ville Constance. I could get a job at the Blackbird’s Grill. I’m sure Cindey would recommend me, even if I haven’t had a baby. But the best idea I have is to drive directly to the police station; surely there would be someone there that can help me. Someone that might help this entire city. I can’t do this on my own anymore, I think to myself. And I realize that I’ve changed even more than I’d thought; I used to be able to, and insisted upon, dealing with any problems I had on my own. But apparently I’ve molted into something much weaker. This new me simply isn’t strong enough. Maybe I should tell Detective Dunphey about the missing swan boats I saw in the university lab too.
I hear footsteps coming down the stairs, indicating I definitely don’t have the time to be standing here any longer. I throw the back door open with such vigor, that the colony of ring-billed gulls that had been loitering in the alley all morning fly off all at once, but still without making a sound. The wall of wings and feathers that springs forth before me is enough to stop me in my tracks.
And when my vision clears, I see someone sitting on the hood of my car. It’s Zirk. He’s still wearing that dirty black housecoat, and he’s carving something into my car with a knife. He doesn’t even turn when he speaks to me; he remains focused on whatever it is he’s doing.
“Hello gorgeous,” he says, his vocal chords still rumbling peculiarly.
Before I can respond, the two men that broke my window and most assuredly shot Professor Nickwelter arrive. I don’t turn around, but I can feel the gun behind me. I’m trapped; they’ve got me cornered. I curse to myself, realizing that I didn’t have my car keys with me anyway, and that I could have just run out onto Newbury Street when I had the chance ten seconds ago. I think I called myself a ‘goober,’ but it could have just been some other charmingly derogative nickname.
“There’s nowhere left to run, Professor,” Zirk continues. “I think you’d better come with us.” He pockets his knife and jumps off the hood of my car into the snow. He lands awkwardly, and stumbles forward a bit, as though his legs were shorter than he’s used to.
The flannel sleep pants I’m wearing have large pockets, big enough for me to slide the journal into. I think I’m being incredibly sneaky, but I’m sure that these guys simply don’t care what I’m doing with it. “What are you doing here?” I ask them all simultaneously, hoping that between the three of them they can come up with an answer that will satisfy me. “And where’s Templeton?” I try my best to not let my emotions get the better of me. I could easily just give up with the thought that Nickwelter is probably bleeding on my carpet right now.
“There’s that question again,” Zirk comments. “Is Templeton Rate really the only thing you care about? Because it sure seems like it to me.” I notice that the word ‘PUFFIN’ has been carved on my hood, right next to the last one. And this time it’s much larger, and much rougher. Messy, like how a five-year old might try and spell.
“Puffin?” I ask out loud, but really just to myself.
“That’s me,” he boasts proudly. “Everyone needs a nickname.” He scratches at himself through the housecoat, trying to track down an itch somewhere under there. Motioning to the men behind me, Zirk asks “Have you met Rob and Bob yet?”
I turn around and get a good look at these two. These were the same two kids I saw in the south laboratory earlier this morning; the two that claimed to be Harvard students. Bob is holding the gun. I guess handguns don’t seem like such a big deal until you’re in your pajamas and being chased into an alley, because I’m completely frozen in fear at the sight of the gleaming weapon. Bob’s the tubby one I spoke to earlier, and I notice now he’s wearing a t-shirt that simply says ‘Virginia’ across the front. I thought there was something strange about the shape of his head before, and now I can tell that it seems disproportionately small in comparison to the rest of his body.
Rob is much more lively than his motionless friend, and his movements are erratic; twitching, shifting his weight from one foot to the other and darting his head back and forth like a bird.
“What’s going on here? What do you want from me?”
“Templeton wants to see you,” Zirk tells me. He’s still got the same bandage over the bridge of his nose, but the crusty, bruised infection I’d noticed earlier seems worse than it was before. Perhaps it’s just an incredibly bizarre coincidence, but it reminds me a little of the colorful orange, yellow and blue plates of an Atlantic Puffin (Fratercula arctica). As does the rumbling under his breath after every sentence. He scratches himself some more underneath his black housecoat.
I take a look up at my broken window, and I’m relieved to see that Claude is unharmed, and watching us all from his cage. Now that I think of it though, I think the earlier gunshots must have scared off all of the other birds in the area. The alley seems emptier, and quieter, than it’s been all morning.
“I think I’m fine without him,” I finally respond. Motioning towards my car, I hope they might have the courtesy to let me go. Maybe these guys have what it takes to respect a girl’s decision. And I’m praying they have absolutely no idea just how scared I am right now.
But Zirk grabs my arm, preventing me from going anywhere. His grip feels tight, even through my heavy sweatshirt. I struggle to break free, but his hand tightens even more. I plead for him to let go. “Come on now Professor,” he says to me, his fishy breath making me sick to my stomach. “There’s no point in struggling anymore.”
“Hey Puffin,” one of the guys behind me says. “You ever seen a movie where the prisoner begs for freedom, and they actually let her go?”
Zirk doesn’t have an answer for him, he remains as calm as can be. I want to scream, but instead, I defy my captor by wriggling my arm out of the sleeve of my sweatshirt. From my peripheral, I notice Bob and Rob moving closer. So I give it everything I’ve got. In my free hand, I’m still holding onto my smoking cigarette. I flick it into Zirk’s face; it sizzles a little on the bandage between his eyes before bouncing off the bridge of his nose and into the snow. Twisting away from him, and using the free arm underneath my shirt, I pull the sweater over my head and slide my other arm out of the sleeve. Zirk falls back: the bold, proud, yellow Hawthorne University font covering his face.
I don’t even know how I do it, but I kick backwards and hit Bob, knocking him backwards into Rob and against the side of my car. The handgun hits the ground, and spins on the icy cement. I pick it up and head west down Public Alley 434. I hear the familiar “Bye-bye Bella” calling out behind me as I leave Claude again, and I try my best to ignore it.
As I near Exeter Street, and just as I’m feeling as though I’ll get out of this mess once and for all, Jonah Mitcherson appears, hobbling into the middle of the alley on his crutches. He still has shorts on too, but he’s now wearing a knit cap to at least keep his head warm.
“What do you guys want from me?” I ask him, hoping for a different answer than I received from the other three.
Of course I don’t get one. “It’s not us, Professor Donhelle. It’s him.” He licks his lips with his large tongue. It appears abnormally thick and oily, frighteningly similar to that of a flamingo. “Templeton Rate just wants everyone to be happy.”
As selfish as Templeton’s always been, I find this more than a little hard to swallow. I point the gun towards Jonah, but I know I wouldn’t have the guts to actually use it. “I’m going to the police. And you can tell Templeton that they won’t be happy.”
I hear footsteps in the snow behind me, and I know that the three men I’ve already eluded are fast approaching. Maybe it’s the adrenaline pumping through me. Maybe it’s the realization that I’ve finally run out of options tonight. Or maybe it’s the fact that I’m not the same person I was a month ago, but something inside me makes me kick this man’s crutch out from under him. Mitchie Mitcherson falls face-first into the snow, and I turn the gun back towards the other three.
I order them to let me walk away from this, and they all step back at my command. It feels good to have this kind of power, although I know I don’t have any idea how to work this cold metal thing in my quivering hands. But it doesn’t matter. With fuzzy penguin socks in flight, I run out onto Exeter Street. I sprint by a deceit of Blacksmith Lapwings (Vanellus armatus), sounding something like popcorn popping. I pass an unkindness of Ravens (Corvus corax), sounding remarkably like television static. I’m not paying attention to the street signs, but I must have run four city blocks already. The morning sunrise not only beams off of the glass veneer of the Hancock Tower to my left and the Prudential Tower to my right, but also off the cold metal gun in my hand. I think I hear birds chirping. Actual chirping. Not making noises like electrical generators or screeching tires, but actual peeping, cheeping, tweeting and twittering. It’s extraordinary.
Then in my most glorious moment, I slip on some black ice, and I slide right into an oncoming car. My body soars across the street. I barely even have enough time to register the irony of how much I’ve yearned to fly over the years. I hit the curb, and bounce into a snow bank. My head thumps hard on the bottom step of a brownstone’s brick staircase.
My body hurts. I’m frozen still on my back and staring straight up into the sky. I hear the car door creak open, and I raise my head just high enough to see Humphries walking towards me. Jerry Humphries, in his old weather-beaten trench coat. My head drops back down, cushioned a little by the fresh snow. I taste blood. My left arm is in an astonishing amount of pain.
He picks up the handgun I dropped, and then crouches down beside me, leaning in close. “Funny running into you here,” he says. I’d almost like to give him credit, as this is probably the wittiest thing I’ve ever heard Humphries say, but I really cannot justify it at this moment. God, my back hurts, but I think I’m more bothered by the smell of this man’s breath.
I can’t move. I can’t speak. My body is in shock. I can only dart my eyes back and forth between Humphries’ ugly visage and the sky above us. The clouds have darkened already, and have taken on a new, somewhat bruised colorization.
Without the benefit of anyone interrupting him, Humphries continues. “Look at you Bella; lying there all helpless. Like a poor little bird with clipped wings.” His eyes scuttle across my body, making me feel even more defenseless. “You know I’ve always imagined you this vulnerable. What I would do with you! What I would do…and what you might do for me.” He leans in closer, studying my lips as close as he can. He takes his finger, his wretched, hairy little chewed-up finger, and touches my bottom lip, then wipes the blood from the corner of my mouth. “Can you stand?” he asks me.
I try to, but I can’t.
He asks, “Can you lift your head?”
Again I try, even though success would mean bringing my face that much closer to this despicable man that I’ve spent the last eight years or so trying to avoid. But I can’t move my neck either. I can hear his ugly car still running. I can smell the exhaust polluting the air and my nostrils.
“No? Is that it then? Is this all the fight you’ve got to give?” He seems upset, as though expecting so much more from me. “Surely you’ve got more of a fire inside you than this?” He stands up, puts his hands on his hips and looks around; he looks around as if trying to figure out what to do next. “So all you can do is just stare up to the heavens? Is that it?” I don’t know if he’s really looking for an answer from me, or if he’s simply content with having this conversation by himself. “Well, there’s nothing up there for you Bella. There’s nothing up there that’s any good for any of us down here. I don’t know if there ever was.”
I don’t want to try and make sense of his ramblings, even if I possibly could. But he’s not overly concerned about receiving a response anyway. He looks at the handgun, nesting within his filthy grip. “Maybe I should just end it all for you right now then? Would you like that Bella?” I give him no answer, although I almost wish I could say ‘yes’ at this point. Next, he points the gun directly at me. “Do you want to share the same fate as Nickwelter? Or that girl? Do you want me to do the same for you as I did for her?”
I try to get the words out of my mouth. “You…?” And due to the numbness and pain, it’s only now that I realize my mouth has been full of icy snow. “You…k-killed Becky?”
“Well, we wouldn’t want Templeton to get his hands dirty, would we? I mean, dirtier than they usually are, that is. Have you ever noticed how mucky his hands are? And you just let him do whatever he wanted with them, didn’t you? You let him put those hands wherever the hell he wanted to.” I’ve never heard Jerry Humphries go on like this before. There’s an inferno inside him that’s fueling his emotions; consuming him. “I do all of his dirty work for him. I have been for months now.”
I never would have believed Humphries’ connection to Templeton ran as deep as it apparently does. I knew there was something strange about their relationship, but this? To have the audacity to actually commit a murder? The feeling is returning to my mouth, and I almost wish it wasn’t, since the pain is unbearable. “But what’s in it for you, Jerry? Why have you done these things for him?”
“He’s a brilliant man, Templeton Rate. He was smart enough to figure out how to have you Bella. I’ve been trying for years, if you haven’t noticed.” There’s jealousy in his green eyes; nothing I haven’t sensed before from the man. But now there’s an underlying calmness about Jerry Humphries. Some kind of acceptance for whatever has already been done. Or possibly for what’s still yet to come.
“But what’s he going to do for you Jerry?”
“He’s already done everything. And he’s letting me be a part of it all.”
“All of what?”
“Things are about to change around here Bella. All of the misery and sadness. The depression, hopelessness, desolation and all of the shittiest, most fucked-up, unfair feelings that everyone has to go through in this life; they’re all coming to an end.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Some call it Armageddon. Some call it the Apocalypse. But no matter who you are, you believe that the end of the world is always signaled by the arrival of angels.” Humphries looks at me. His eyes are urging me to agree with him, to acknowledge what he’s saying as fact, even though I now realize he’s utterly mad. “Look around you!” he screams, his arms spread wide. “Do you see any angels here? Obviously the end of the world has already come, or else things wouldn’t be as fucked as they are. But there was no warning. There was no messenger from Heaven.”
I still can’t move. If I could, I’d physically try to knock some sense into this man. Instead, I try my best to do it verbally. “Maybe that’s because it hasn’t happened yet,” I suggest. “Or better yet, maybe all of that religious mumbo jumbo is just made up? Wouldn’t that actually make more sense?”
“That’s bullshit. The truth is that obviously no angel is ever going to want to come back to all of this. Would you want to? Would you come back here if you had it so fucking good up there?” Humphries has always been a religious man, I know because of all of the times I’ve rejected his invitations to go to church with him. But this is bordering on psychotic behavior. Much more than a Jesus fish could ever hint at.
“So humanity is doomed then?” I ask him, wondering what it will take to make him stop. “You’re saying that we should just give up since there won’t be anyone to save us anyway?”
“Haven’t you been paying attention? Of course someone will save us.” I can tell from his eyes that this man really has lost his mind. “Someone is already saving us, and his name is Templeton Rate.”
It’s just as Templeton once told me: “I can’t believe how religion can bring out the most idiotic ideas in people.”
Is this really what Templeton wished for? Is this really what he believed?
The words still ring in my head; something else he said to me in the university parking lot, the day I broke up with him. “Everyone will believe in something different,” he told me. “And if you’re lucky enough, some of them will even believe anything that you tell them.”
Is Humphries just believing whatever Templeton had told him? Or is this really the end of the world? Above me, I notice that a Black-Capped Chickadee (Poecile atricapillus) is trapped inside the brownstone. It tries to fly out through the closed window, repeatedly hitting his beak against the glass in fits of fury. In some American superstitions, if a bird flew into your house, it was the bearer of important news, but if it couldn’t get out again, some believed it was a sign of death.
I spot a Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens) pecking at the wooden door at the top of the steps. In Alaska, it’s believed that if a woodpecker tapped on your door, it brought bad news, possibly even the death of someone in the family.
I’ve also heard that the call of a Whip-poor-will (Caprimulgus vociferus) or the hoot of the Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus) was sometimes a sign of death or bad luck. Beyond the already all-too familiar sounds of train whistles, machine guns and wood chippers, I can hear them both; a whip-poor-will to the east and a hoot to the south.
Jerry Humphries moves towards me again, reaching his hand out to grab me. But I find the strength to resist. My body hurts so much, but I won’t have this man lay another finger on me. I pull my legs in, and kick out with both of them. My feet connect with his rib cage, and he falls back.
I kick him further than I expected I might, as though he weighs far less than he should. He lands with such weightlessness in fact, that it actually seems to aid him in quickly getting back on his feet. Immediately, he turns his attention back towards me. “A change is coming Bella. There’s nothing you can do to stop it.” He’s right in my face again already; his speed is hard to believe. “And everyone, except you, is going to have Templeton to thank for it.”
“Why not me? Don’t I get a choice in all of this?”
“Maybe you did, but I’m taking that choice away from you. Because you don’t deserve it. You don’t deserve any of it, you ungrateful bitch.”
The wind catches his coat, blowing it away from his body momentarily. And I think I understand him now. I don’t believe what I’m seeing, but I think I am accepting it; I’m certain that I see a pair of white feathery wings underneath his coat.
And that’s right about when he pulls the gun back and strikes me in the head.
That’s the moment that I fall unconscious.
And that’s when this story actually begins.