Molt – Chapter Fifteen

The One with the Big, Bold MURDERED on it

MONDAY, NOVEMBER THIRD. I haven’t seen or heard from Templeton for three days now. He drove me back home Friday night, just as I’d requested, but he didn’t stay the night. And he didn’t take the bus home, claiming he’d rather walk across Boston than ride the filth that is public transit. I chose not to remind him of where we were the first time we’d met. He said he still had some trick and treating to do before the night was over. That was how he said it: trick and treating. Templeton told me he’d be working at the hotel all weekend, but he said the least he could do was give me a call on a smoke break. Turns out, he could still manage to do even less than that. I have yet to find out which hotel he works at. He also should have been in my Field Identification class this morning, but his seat was noticeably empty. Noticeable by me, at least. I’m not sure if the other students are aware that Templeton Rate is even supposed to be in the class.

It’s been a week now since Claude went missing. I still wake up every morning at 3:00 AM to crack open the mouthwash, but now I include another desperate search along the way. When I looked out my window this morning, all I noticed was the foot of snow that had fallen overnight. I stare at my buried car, and I dread the commute. There’s no worse time to see a foot of snow when it’s a Monday morning and you already had no desire to leave your apartment.

I recall the first day of snow as being the day I made a fool of myself in the university library. That was four weeks ago now.

If I hadn’t slept with Templeton Rate.

My class has just ended and I catch myself daydreaming. I’m staring out the window of my taxonomy classroom, watching a murder of American Crows (Corvus brachyrhynchos) adjust their flight patterns in accordance with the afternoon’s falling snow.

A knock on the door behind me snaps me back to attention. I’m expecting to see him standing there; I’ve already envisioned the dirty hands and piercing eyes under an icy-wet head of hair.

But it’s not Templeton who has come to see me this afternoon, but rather Anton Frye, the rarely seen Dean of Faculty at Hawthorne University. With him is one officer of the Boston Police Department.

“Isabelle, may we have words?” Anton Frye doesn’t have many friends within the school that I’m aware of, which is likely due to his instinctive nature of speaking to intimidate. That being said, our relationship allows me to know him as Anton, whereas most of the other faculty simply refer to him as Dean. Or The Dean, as he has routinely preferred.

If The Dean had been telling this story, nobody would dare argue the facts.

“Of course Anton. Good afternoon officer.”

“It’s detective, actually.” He responds in a completely expected thick Boston accent. He surveys the room quickly before suggesting, “Would you mind if we sat somewhere a little more private?”

I turn back to the window to see the crows have disappeared completely.

I close the door to my office as Anton Frye and Detective Dunphey take their seats. Dean Frye is a wiry little man, with round glasses that seem much too big for his head. Dunphey is his exact opposite: a large bear of a man, but his years on the force have seen what muscle I imagine he used to have overtaken by fat. Of particular distraction are the wattles of his throat. The two of them bring an image to my mind of the Looney Tunes characters Foghorn Leghorn, a Kentucky rooster, and Egghead Jr., a baby chick. Both are of the same species, Gallus gallus.

“What can I do for you gentlemen?” I feel a slight pain in the back of my throat as I swallow.

“I’m sure you saw the news last night?” Anton hints aggressively.

“Uhm, no. What news was that?”

The two of them glance at each other, as though suspicious of my naïve response. “Do you read the paper?” the detective asks.

“No. I’m sorry. What’s happened?”

Detective Dunphey pulls a rolled-up Boston Globe from the inside pocket of his uniform. He tosses it face-up in front of me. The date is this morning’s and the headline reads:

SOUTH BOSTON WOMAN MURDERED

I look back up to both The Dean and the detective, still uncertain of what this is all about, and how it might have anything to do with me. “I…I’m sorry. I don’t understand.” I’m quick to assume that this is a clue to the whereabouts of a certain parrot.

“Neighbors reported gunshots last night, but there were no signs of bullets,” Detective Dunphey starts, coldly delivering the facts. “This woman was found dead in her apartment. She was keeled over with her head in the kitchen sink. The lights were left on, and a neighbor across the way could see the body from her window. There was a hunting knife dug into her skull.”

I shiver a little, and turn back to the paper. The front-page story gives no names; no details at all have been revealed to the public yet. I look up again, my eyes questioning the both of them.

The detective says, “Her name was Rebecca Chandler.”

I shrug my shoulders. “Should I know her?”

Anton Frye fills in the blanks for me. “Isabelle. Becky was one of your students.”

What?

“And apparently,” Anton starts with a gulp in his throat, “she and Nickwelter were engaged in some sort of…extra-curricular relationship.”

“Professor Nickwelter?” I ask, as though there could be more than one.

“That’s right. The police spoke with his wife, but no one has any idea where he might be.”

The picture on the paper is not clear, and all I can make out is a body bag on a gurney being wheeled into the back of an ambulance. “Oh my God…” Sickened, I push the paper back to the detective and then sit back in my chair.

He takes the paper back and rolls it up in his large hands. “Obviously we want to find this man and ask him a few questions. We don’t have any motives, but for now we have to consider him our prime suspect.”

“Professor Nickwelter?” I think back to last Tuesday, to my last conversation with him. He told me he had left his wife. He said he’d do anything to have his position at the school restored. But he wouldn’t be dumb enough to do something like this, would he? “This…this is horrible. There’s no way he could have done this.”

Anton pushes, “You seemed to know him much better than anyone else, Isabelle. You two were…friendly, yes?”

Friendly? He does an absolutely horrid job at dodging the details, especially since he knows the truth anyway. Anton Frye was the man who suspended Professor Nickwelter from the school for a year. Detective Dunphey cocks his head at The Dean’s statement, as though hearing this information for the first time. He leans his body in over the desk, closer to me. “Did you and the suspect have a relationship, Miss Donhelle?” He points the rolled-up newspaper towards me menacingly.

“Do you have to refer to him as ‘the suspect’? I can’t imagine Professor Nickwelter could ever murder someone.”

Anton Frye does the detective’s work for him. “Answer the question please.”

“Yes. We dated for a while. But that was two years ago.”

The detective writes my answers down on a notepad. “Was he married at the time?”

“Yes. He was married. How is that relevant to what’s happened? Like I said, that was two years ago.”

My question is ignored, in favor of one more of the detective’s. “When was the last time you spoke with the sus – with Mr. Nickwelter?”

“Last week. Tuesday, I think.”

“How would you explain his behavior? Can you describe it to me?” His pen is ready and waiting for anything I’ve got to say. His other hand is big enough to hold both the newspaper and a notepad.

“He…um, he told me…he told me that he still loved me.” I blew it off at the time, but maybe now I’m starting to piece together the significance of that statement. The two men are simultaneously putting the same pieces together. “But I have a boyfriend. I told him that. And I told him it wasn’t going to work between us.”

“Between you and your boyfriend?”

“No.” I stop as soon as I register the detective’s misunderstood words. Whether he’d meant to be or not, he was already one step ahead of me. Things really aren’t going to work between Templeton and me, are they? There’s nothing about him that’s right for me, is there? I must have known it all along too, but I’ve waited until now to tell myself the truth. “My relationship with Professor Nickwelter was over. I told him that.”

“How did he react?”

“Well, he was angry. I know he was still bitter over the fact that I had taken over his position at the school. And he told me that I was risking my own career, and that he would do anything to get his job back.”

“Risking your own career? How exactly?”

If Detective Dunphey had been telling this story, he wouldn’t have started until he had all the facts.

“My boyfriend. He…he’s one of my students.”

Anton perks up again. “A student?”

“His name is Templeton Rate.”

Templeton Rate?” he asks. “I’ve never heard of him. Who is he?”

“Well, he’s a new student. I think.”

“You think?”

“I don’t really know any of these kids. Students are just students. They’re completely interchangeable. They’re all generic to me. Just names on reports.”

Detective Dunphey gets back to his reason for being here. “Can I ask where you were this weekend? Did you go anywhere at all?”

“I was out Friday night. With Templeton. We went up to Salem for Halloween. But I was home the rest of the weekend. I didn’t go anywhere.”

Anton throws another suspicious look my way. “Did you hear about the fire in Salem on Friday night?” I instantly recall seeing the fire trucks speed by us as Templeton and I were leaving the city, and I remember the burning house past the graveyard. But I don’t say anything; I let him continue. “Five houses in Salem burned to the ground on Halloween night. Five old abandoned houses that have been empty since the seventies. One of those houses was where Nelson Hatch lived.” Detective Dunphey turns to Dean Frye, wondering what the point is. The Dean obliges his unspoken query, and turns directly to the detective to explain. “Nelson Hatch founded this school in 1932. He was born in Brooklyn in 1895, and he died in Salem in 1974.”

The detective fails to see the relevance to this bit of disconnected information, and returns to the subject at hand. “One last question Miss Donhelle: do you have any idea where Mr. Nickwelter might be? Any ideas at all?”

“I don’t. I’m sorry.”

Dunphey tosses the newspaper into my trash, and hands me a card with his name and number on it. I didn’t know police carried their own business cards. “Thank you for your time.” He gets up from his seat, letting Dean Frye know that there are still a few more questions that need to be asked. Anton glares at me once more before they leave my office together. The bold MURDERED hangs over the edge of my wastepaper basket, and I can’t help but think that of all the wrong things Templeton is for me, the worst might possibly be the death of my career.

If Becky Chandler had been telling this story, it would have a dreadfully horrible ending.

I stay in my office for another fifteen minutes, attempting to figure out everything that’s fallen apart in so short of a time. As unbelievable as it sounds, a student of mine is dead. Professor Nickwelter is missing and accused of this girl’s murder. Claude is still gone too, probably buried under the snow somewhere and wondering why I haven’t come looking for him. Templeton still hasn’t called me. I’m trying to figure out which of these has me more unnerved.

The falling snow outside makes me realize that this is definitely not the change I was looking for.

If Templeton hadn’t avoided me for the last three days; if he hadn’t taken me to Salem and scared me like he did; if he hadn’t climbed up my fire escape and told me that he loved me; if he hadn’t made me fall for him in The Strangest Feeling; if he hadn’t followed me onto the bus.

What am I doing here? I never would have made such poor judgment calls a year ago, back when I had my act together. Sure, I’d slept with Professor Nickwelter, but I knew from the very start that was the wrong thing to be doing. I wasn’t fooling myself then like I am now.

Or was I?

Maybe this is every relationship. Maybe this is normal. Maybe there could be someone somewhere who might be jealous of what I have for once. Maybe it was Antonia the ostrich. Maybe Becky Chandler. Maybe it was the dead girl named Autumn.

No. I can’t accept that any of this my fault. I’m better than that. I won’t put everything I’ve worked towards in jeopardy.

I need to find Templeton.

I need to talk to him.

I need to tell him that everything about him is completely wrong for me.

And I need to tell him that it’s over between us.

But as I get up from my seat, the first thing I do is throw up in my wastepaper basket. Everything has literally come to the surface. It’s all over the morning paper, the one with the big, bold MURDERED on it. I crouch over the trash for a moment longer, completely light-headed. I don’t want to smell this, but it can’t be helped. I don’t want to look, but I do. What I’ve coughed up is startlingly black, like wet coffee grounds. Shining like the sheen of the dead raven on my textbook.

Five minutes later, I’m putting on my coat and taking the trash with me. I lock up my office behind me and slowly make my way outside, bracing myself against the wall with one arm the entire way. A couple of students approach me, laughing as they pass by, and I’m careful to not to appear as awful as I feel.

Opening the door into the courtyard, it’s actually a relief to be out in the cold and to feel the snow fall on my face again. It helps me to feel less nauseous. There’s a dumpster just ahead of me, and I toss the wastepaper basket and all of its contents into it: the empty coffee cups, the scribbled phone messages, the half-eaten tuna fish sandwiches, the newspaper and the throw up.

I follow the path to the parking lot. I see the same crows I’d spotted earlier from the classroom window; they’re hopping around, bumping into one another and pecking at the fresh snow in an attempt to find buried treasures. The word ‘murder’ comes to mind again, but I try not to think about it.

I stop for a moment and watch them. I marvel at their intelligence; the systems they use in order to know exactly how to find what they’re looking for. Suddenly they stop, all six of them, and look up at me. Their beaks point in unison towards the school. I realize that if I’m going to find Templeton, I’m going to have to start in the south laboratory.

I’m only a footstep away from the lab door when I begin to feel woozy again. My equilibrium is off, and my vision blurs. I reach out for the door handle, but I crumple to the floor instead. It takes me a few seconds before I can regain my senses. Thankfully, no one is around to see me like this.

I try my key in the lock, but it doesn’t turn. Checking the key, I make sure it’s labeled ‘South Lab.’ I bang on the door a few times, with no answer.

Hearing footsteps coming towards me, I straighten myself out, hoping I don’t look too horrible. But it’s only Jerry Humphries that approaches, in the same grubby trench coat and with his usual revoltingly cheerful greeting.

“Good afternoon Bella,” he starts, completely unaware that I’m really not myself today. “I saw some thug with a badge wandering the halls with The Dean. Someone in trouble?”

“It’s really not a matter that’s of any concern to you Jerry.” The inside of my mouth is dry, and it’s almost a challenge to speak. There’s a water fountain on the opposite wall, so I step across the floor and drink some quickly. Humphries stares at me, watching every gulp I take.

“It doesn’t have anything to do with Professor Nickwelter, does it? I haven’t seen him around today.”

“Please,” I urge him, trying not to visualize the front page of the Globe. “I really don’t have the time for this conversation right now. When I say something is none of your business, you need to take me for my word and leave it at that.” He jumps out of my way as I move back towards the laboratory door. “Who changed the lock on this door?”

“I did,” he says nonchalantly.

“Why would you do that?”

“Hey, I just do what I’m told. That’s all I’m good for around here.” Humphries tries to brush some fresh snow from my shoulder, but I swat his hand away before he can touch me.

“Well, can you open it for me?”

“Do you mind me asking what it is that you’re looking for?”

“Just open the door Jerry.”

Humphries pauses for a moment, as though taking orders from me is below him. He unlocks the door and flicks the light switch. The overhead lights slowly illuminate the large room from one end to the other. The wooden frame is still here, a little more progress has been made on it. The piles of sawdust have gotten bigger, and the boxes seem to be stacked closer to the ceiling now. Tools and incomprehensible equipment are still scattered everywhere; stuff like metal cylinders, sealed canisters, coils and wires. But there’s no sign of Templeton Rate.

I can hear birds chirping from somewhere nearby. I think I hear the call of an Amazonian Antshrike (Thamnophilus amazonicus), but I’m not certain.

“Do you know where Templeton is?” I ask Humphries, but all I get for an answer are shrugged shoulders. “Do you know who’s been using this space?”

“Some student. Mitch…Mitchell. Mitchie, I think his name was. They’re all the same to me.”

“Who’s giving students access to this lab?”

“I am.”

“You? Why would you do that? These labs aren’t here to be the students’ personal storage lockers.”

Jerry Humphries looks around suspiciously and then leans in, a little too close for my liking. “Well, let’s just say that the two of us came to an agreement.” He rubs his index finger and middle finger against his thumb, hinting at some sort of financial arrangement.

I think I hear the musical chirps of a Resplendent Quetzal (Pharomachrus mocinno) from somewhere unknown.

I’m about to turn the lights back off, but then something else catches my eye. Inside the wooden box, there are some sheets of metal being laid across the walls. Within the reflective surface, I see something concealed in the corner of the room, hiding out of sight. It looks like something, or six giant fiberglass swan-shaped somethings covered with a tarp. Immediately, I think of the missing swan boats from the Lagoon, but I’m certain I don’t want to ask Jerry Humphries about it. I thumb the detective’s card in my pocket. Maybe I’ll call the police and let them know about this, but right now I’ve got far too much on my mind.

Deep inside me, I know that Humphries has to be aware of something more. “Do you know where Templeton is?” I ask him, accusingly.

“You already asked me that.” I guess I did, but my mind is totally scattered right now. “But if I see him,” Humphries starts, “I’ll let him know you’ve been snooping around here for him.”

“This is ridiculous,” I say, and shut the lights off and close the door behind us. “Listen. I can’t believe something like this could even begin to happen, but I want you to fix this situation Jerry. Find that kid. Get those keys from him. And get your head straight.”

“Does this mean you’ll be breaking up with your boyfriend?”

“If I can find him.”

“One can’t change sides once they’ve been placed by God, Bella” I hear him call out behind my back, ominously. I’m not sure what it is he means by it. I don’t want to ask him, and he doesn’t tell me either.

When I get back outside to my car, I brush off the snow that’s accumulated all morning. With the very first swipe I uncover the ‘PUFFIN’ on my hood. As I sit behind the wheel with the engine running and waiting for the heat to kick in, I begin to feel light-headed again. My head is pounding. The muscles on my right arm begin twitching. I watch my pronator teres as it pulsates beneath the skin. I realize that I haven’t had a single cup of coffee today, and I wonder just how much my body would notice if the vast amount that I’ve ingested over the last month suddenly dropped to zero.

I’m sweating now, so I turn the heater dial from red to blue and roll down my window. I leaning back, allowing the winter chill to envelop me once again, and I spot a pack of Templeton’s cigarettes wedged between the driver’s seat and the hand brake. I don’t know what’s come over me, if it’s the news about that poor girl’s murder or if it’s the realization that my relationship with Claude-What’s-His-Name will have lasted longer than my relationship with Templeton Rate, but I need something to calm myself down. I pick up the package and study it in my hand for a minute. I read the message on the front, straight from the desk of this mysterious Surgeon General:

WARNING: Smoking Causes Lung Cancer, Heart Disease,

Emphysema, and May Complicate Pregnancy.

It was just as I’d feared.

If the Surgeon General had been telling this story, the cover would have warnings all over it.

Popping the lid open, I smell the nicotine and recall my first feeble attempt at smoking a few nights ago in the Salem graveyard. I know that I can give it a better effort than that.

Pumping the cigarette lighter a few times, I acknowledge that this is probably the only feature of my car that’s never seen any use. Pulling it out of its warm dashboard nest, I hold it up to the cigarette in my mouth for a few seconds before the paper lights up. Instantly, I find truth in what I’ve heard smokers say when they talk about the calming affect a cigarette can have. The smoke seems to lick its way all over my insides: in my mouth, down my throat, through my arms, soothing my twitching muscles, and enveloping my brain.

In fact, I’m so calm that I’m totally oblivious to the sound of crunching snow underneath very familiar shoes. Templeton sticks his head into my car, and scares me a little with his discovery. “Well, well, well. If it isn’t the girl with no vices?” I jump back, and drop the hot metallic lighter into my lap. It burns on my leg, and I kick it to the floor quickly.

“Templeton?” I say, and I accidentally swallow the smoke in my mouth, almost choking. He doesn’t flinch at all. “What are you doing here?”

“Just wondering where you’re off to. Don’t you have another class this afternoon?”

“Don’t start getting on my case about proper attendance. Where were you this morning? Field Identification…do you remember that one?”

He reaches in and takes the cigarette from my hand. “These things will kill you, you know that?” He takes one long drag off of it before flicking it away over his shoulder. The cold air extinguishes the cigarette before it even touches the snow. “That Identification class of yours is bullshit, you know? None of that stuff is of any use to me. Or anyone else there, for that matter.”

He always does this. He always tries to get me riled up about something he knows I won’t be able to change his opinion on, whether he actually believes what he says or not. Templeton always wants to win. And he always does. But not this time. This time I won’t let him.

I shut the engine off and push the door open. Templeton has to jump back to avoid being hit. I step outside of my car defiantly. I haven’t yet rehearsed the words in my head, aside from thumbing through thoughts in my office thirty minutes ago. So I cut to the chase.

“Templeton…it’s not working.”

“Of course not. You took your keys out, dummy.”

“Not the car. Us. This relationship isn’t good. It’s not doing either of us any good.”

Templeton stares at me, unblinking with his hands in his coat pockets. He’s staring at me almost as though he could already see this coming. As though he knew it from the first moment: that moment on the bus, or the moment he sat beside me in The Strangest Feeling and we stared at each other’s reflections in the mirrored mini fridge. What I’m saying to him seems completely expected, like the moment the ball drops on the television and everybody in the room yells “Happy New Year!” Like the first fireworks shot into the sky on the Fourth of July. Like when the phone rings on your birthday and you know it’s your mother on the other end and the first thing she’ll say is “Happy Birthday, sweetheart.” Like any celebration that loses all of its exhilaration because nobody is the least bit surprised. Because they’ve anticipated it all year long, since it happened the last time.

I notice that Templeton is again wearing the shirt with the little brown-headed nuthatch on it. I wonder if it’s been washed since that first night a month ago.

“It’s over,” I say with finality.

And an uninterested “Uh huh,” is all I get from him.

“Is that all you’ve got to say to me?”

“Well, what do you want me to say? It sounds to me like you’ve already made whatever decision you think you need to make.”

I guess I have. It was inevitable though, wasn’t it? He wasn’t exactly taking this relationship seriously, was he? Was I?

“Does this mean you’ll be getting back together with Nickwelter?”

“Of course not.” Again, I try my best to not think about the newspaper, and the words written in bold across the front page. “I need to focus on what’s really important to me.”

“And that is?”

“My job. This whole school. I can’t afford to lose any of this.”

Templeton studies my response for a moment. I’m telling the truth, but I don’t think he’s completely buying what I have to say. Or maybe it’s just that he doesn’t care. If he ever had.

“Templeton please. This just isn’t working. I realize that now.”

“Is that what you really believe, Bella?”

“I’m sorry. Yes.” It’s me who’s apologizing, but I know it shouldn’t be. That’s how it always works with people. “Maybe I was hoping that something would be right between us; that this change would be good for me. But that was just wishful thinking. Just a moment of weakness on my part.”

Templeton keeps looking at me, knowing there’s more to this story than what I’m telling him. How does he always seem to know these things?

He walks around to the front of my car, and sits down on the hood. I expect him to reach into his coat and light up a cigarette, but he doesn’t. Instead, he shares another memory with me. “I used to go to church all the time when I was a boy. Every Sunday.”

“I didn’t know that,” is all I can say to him. And really, why should I know that? It’s not as though he’s shared much in the way of his past with me before now. Why does he always have to act like this? Why does he always have to be so puzzling in the moments that I need him to be straight with me? I think that I would ask him that right now, if I wasn’t trying so hard to simply put an end to everything.

If I hadn’t stayed in the parking lot, wanting to listen to him.

“One particular Sunday we left the church, my mother and sister and I. It was a morning just like any other morning. But it was not going to be the same as any before. It felt sort of…unusually usual, if that makes any sense to you. As soon as we’d walked back to the car I realized that I’d lost my chain. The holy cross my mother had given to me. The one I’d worn around my neck for as long as I could remember. So my mother suggested that I go back in and see if I could find it. She said something absurd like, “Jesus would leave it in plain sight for me.” I can’t believe how religion can bring out the most idiotic ideas, even in somewhat intelligent people.”

He hasn’t even made a point yet, but his story is already sending shivers down my spine. It’s already making me regret things that I have no right to be regretting.

If I hadn’t gone to Salem that night, wanting to be with him.

“I went back inside to look for it, but I didn’t find anything. That church floor had always seemed impossibly clean to me, as though God himself had personally cleaned it.” He stops for a moment, hanging onto his last words. “You see what I mean about religion making intelligent people say the most fucked up things?”

If I hadn’t made that phone call the night Claude went missing, so badly needing him.

“Anyway, I asked a few of the religious stragglers if they might have seen it. Some of the sheep that were still there marking themselves with the sign of the cross. But no one could help me. I went to the pew where we had sat for the morning service and I took one last look. There was a man sitting right where we had sat. I was too young to remember what he looked like, but I can recall what he said as I approached him. He said, “Hello Matthew.” I didn’t know what to say, but that man held it up in his hand. He had found my necklace for me. I reached out for it, but he pulled his hand back. He then went on to tell me things like there was no God. He told me there was no such thing as angels.” Templeton leans back on the palms of his hands. He turns his face to the sky. I watch his fingers as they dig into the hood of my car like talons. “He told me we were all wasting our time waiting for Jesus. He told me there was no truth to Heaven or Hell. And he told me that churches held no purpose other than to give ignorant and misguided people a false sense of hope.”

If I hadn’t sat outside on the curb that morning, waiting for him.

“And I told him that I’d heard of people like him before. People that wouldn’t ever believe in the things that I was taught to believe in. And that my mother told me I should never listen to the things these people would tell me. And I asked him who he was. He tossed the chain back to me and he told me that he was my father. But I didn’t believe him.”

If I hadn’t waited in the library that afternoon, wanting to help him.

“Do you know what I did then? I put that necklace in my pocket. Without another word, I turned around and left the church. When my mother asked me if I had found it, I told her that I didn’t. I told her that Jesus must not be such a helpful guy after all.”

If I hadn’t returned to The Strangest Feeling so many nights, wanting to see him again.

“I never wore that chain around my neck again. I think I tossed it in a ditch or something. I’m not sure. And I refused to go to church with my mother and sister from that day on. They couldn’t understand the things that I was now starting to believe, but it didn’t bother me.”

If only that night, exactly one month ago, hadn’t been my birthday.

“A few months later, my mother and sister died when our house burned to the ground.”

If I hadn’t been rejected from the Doneau High basketball team, none of this would have happened.

His story is sad, but there’s only one thing I can ask him. “Why did that man call you Matthew?”

“Because he was crazy. That was my point.”

“I didn’t know there was a point to that story.”

“Of course Bella. I realized then that people are only good for telling you what they believe in. They don’t care what you really want, or what the truth really is; they simply want to force their beliefs on you. To convert more sheep.”

“But you believed what that man told you, didn’t you? Isn’t that why you never went to church again?”

“No. I realized that my beliefs sat somewhere in the middle of what my mother preached to me, and what that stranger had said. But don’t condemn me for having different beliefs than you do Bella.”

The same words he spoke in the graveyard three nights ago.

Don’t think me any less intelligent than you,” he had said that night.

I can’t force you to wholly believe in the same things I believe,” he had said.

But I can make you accept it,” he had said.

From somewhere, I think I hear the unmistakable wooden ‘bonk’ of the male Three-Wattled Bellbird (Procnias tricarunculata).

“I think I’d better get going,” I say to him. I don’t know why it hurts so much, but it does. How can it be wrong for me to do what my heart is urging me to do? I climb back inside my car and close the door. As it slams shut, it seems to force more tears out of my eyes. I want to throw up again, but this time for completely different reasons. Templeton is outside my windshield, still sitting on the hood of my car.

I turn the key. The engine fails to start.

Templeton stands up and turns around. There’s a look in his eyes that tells me he knows far more than I thought he did. And that all of this is far from being over.

From wherever comes the distinctive call of a Sulawesi Thrush (Cataponera turdoides).

I turn the key again, and I don’t let go of it until the engine roars back to life. I shift the car into drive.

“Everyone will believe in something different, Isabella,” he says, almost as a warning. “And if you’re lucky enough, some of them will believe anything that you tell them.”

He steps out of my way, and he lets me leave him. With the window still rolled down, I can hear his words as I pass by. But he’s through with his preacher’s warnings, and he’s moved along to simply being cryptic. “That’s why Nickwelter killed that girl.”

I don’t get the connection, but I’m also trying my best not to make one.

I don’t know how he knows the things he thinks he does, but I tell myself it doesn’t matter anymore.

I keep driving. I look into the rearview mirror, and he’s standing there in the patch of rectangle where my car was just parked. It’s the only empty spot I see. Even the crows have moved on. Templeton Rate is the only sign of life that I leave behind in the snow-covered parking lot.

If I had stopped telling this story, now would probably be a good time.

NEXT CHAPTER

Molt – Chapter Thirteen

Fourteen Seconds for a Chicken

TUESDAY, OCTOBER TWENTY-EIGHTH. I don’t have any classes today, which is a good thing since I would probably only be embarrassing myself. This cup of cold cafeteria coffee is the one thing that’s keeping me awake at this point.

I’d left my window open all night, and I’d spent most of my sleepless morning continuing to search inside my apartment and outside in the alley. But there was still no sign of Claude anywhere. Oddly, those pigeons on the telephone wires were also absent all morning.

I haven’t seen or heard from Templeton so far today, which is aggravating to no end. But it’s also somewhat reassuring at the same time.

I’m thinking I should call it a day, I should go home and try to get some sleep, but I decide to bite the bullet and have that pre-arranged talk with Professor Nickwelter I’d reneged on yesterday.

I find Nickwelter in his office, reading a magazine and eating a sandwich from the university cafeteria. I knock on the doorframe, and he invites me inside. He sets the magazine facedown on the desk. On the back, there’s an advertisement for contact lenses, and there’s a picture of a Golden Eagle (Aquila chrysaetos). I can only assume this is due to the golden eagle’s extra eyelid, or what is scientifically known as a nictitating membrane. This transparent eyelid closes to protect the bird’s eye from wind shear, or when staring at the sun. Not quite the same as a contact lens, but I’m certain the advertising wiz must have thought it was genius.

“Hello Isabelle,” he says calmly. “Thank you for coming to see me.”

“I’m sorry I didn’t come by yesterday Professor. I wasn’t feeling well, so I went home early.”

“Hmm? Oh yes. Some of us were wondering where it was you’d disappeared to. I hope it wasn’t bad spaghetti again.”

“Pardon?” I’m unsure why it is, but my mind has already begun to forget about the birthday dinner that took place weeks ago, and the transparent excuses used to escape from it.

Nickwelter sits back a little, almost in defense. “It’s nothing. I’m sorry.” He’s still knows when not to push my buttons. Even if some of my buttons are new ones he’s now unfamiliar with.

“This isn’t a bad time, is it?” I ask, for no other reason than the fact that he might want to finish his article.

“Of course not. Have a seat.”

I close the door behind me. Nickwelter’s office chairs are much nicer than mine, with plush cushions and armrests. Perhaps it’s because he likes having guests more than I do. This room is full of history, most of it ancient. It’s the very same office in which Nelson Hatch, the founder of Hawthorne University, used to work out of. There’s a painted portrait of the man hanging on the wall to my right. I imagine this is the way Professor Nickwelter would have looked if he had never smoked a day in his life. A little smoother. A little cleaner. A little more polished around the ornithological edges.

Nelson Hatch was a brilliant man. I admit that I don’t know as much about him as others around here do, Professor Nickwelter being our resident specialist on the subject. I know he was born somewhere in New York, and that he died somewhere here in Massachusetts. From the stories I’ve heard and read, he was not only incredibly intelligent, but he was also a gentle and caring man. He had devoted his whole life to the study of ornithology, and the only thing he seemed to care about more was the education of his students. He was also known to be a bit of an eccentric, and the thing about him that most people still talk about are his famous sayings. He had many phrases that he’d created himself, seemingly for his own amusement, and it was not uncommon to hear his words spoken throughout the halls of the university. Even still to this day, you can hear students quoting him in passing. Such as:

“Looks like the flamingo has gotten the better of you.” Meaning: you’re blushing. The Flamingo’s striking red, pink and coral feathers, as well as its bright yellow legs, are colored by the carotenoids in their food. If deprived of the required canthaxanthin, the flamingo’s feathers will fade to white.

“That’s like fourteen seconds for a chicken.” Meaning: that’s impossible; due to the longest recorded flight for a chicken being thirteen seconds.

And my personal favorite:

“If pigs really could fly, would everyone finally be satisfied?” Meaning: this was more of a question, a musing on the popular saying ‘when pigs fly;’ which seems to only be uttered when somebody was already prepared to be disappointed by something.

If Nelson Hatch had been telling this story, it would certainly contain far more riddled bird analogies.

There are a few paintings of birds lining the walls also, one of them, a Hooded Merganser (Lophodytes cucullatus), being an original piece by John James Audubon himself. When Audubon would paint birds, he would first carefully shoot them with a fine bullet in order to prevent the birds from being unnecessarily torn apart. He would then use wires to prop them up, back into life-like positions. Finally, he would return the birds to their natural habitat where he would use them as the subjects for his work.

I remember being in awe of this picture since my very first day at Hawthorne. It was the first time I’d ever met Professor Nickwelter, and it was one of the last times I thought somebody knew more about ornithology than I did.

The merganser and I are both eyeing the sad-looking, half-eaten sandwich on Professor Nickwelter’s desk. I don’t think I’ve consumed anything but coffee today. An organic Harari blend this morning (a complex, medium-bodied roast with notes of fruity flavor), followed by four or five cups of not-so-fresh Hawthorne cafeteria mud.

Professor Nickwelter removes his reading glasses, places them in his jacket pocket, and then slowly folds his hands in front of him on the desk. He seems unsure of where he wants to start, which is sort of relieving.

I try my best to get this meeting over with. “What did you want to see me about Professor?”

“I’ve made a decision Isabelle.” When he’s nervous, he always seems to speak as though he’s reading from a textbook. “I’m not entirely sure what your reaction will be, however I sincerely hope that this is something that will work for the both of us.”

I get the sinking feeling that this probably has less to do with our respective positions at Hawthorne University, and far more to do with the position we found ourselves in two weeks ago in the back of his car.

His eyes lock on to mine. “I’ve done it. I’ve decided to leave Beth. I want to be with you, and you alone. I realize that now.”

I instantly turn away from him, trying to avoid eye contact. Those eyes of his used to be able to convince me to do just about anything. I look to the hooded merganser for some kind of sign. Something that will get me through this conversation without me losing my highly caffeinated temper. The bird seems to shrug its wings, letting me know I’m on my own here.

“Bella?” he continues. “Did you hear me? I said I realize now that I want to be with you. I told Beth the very same thing last night.”

“How on earth could you do that? Don’t you remember what you told me last time?” He shrugs his shoulders in response, just like the merganser. “You told me to forget about everything that’s ever gone on between the two of us, didn’t you?”

“Did I say that? That doesn’t sound like me.”

“Of course it sounds like you Professor. These back-and-forth decisions and up-and-down lies you tell everyone was all you ever were when we were together.”

“You can’t tell me that what we had meant nothing to you. You told me that I was the only good thing in your life.”

Maybe at the time. I want to tell him I’ve evolved since then. I’ve changed. I’ve met Templeton Rate. But I don’t say anything.

Nickwelter’s eyes tear up. He rubs them with his hands, as though he’s got dust in his eyes, but I can tell this isn’t dust; this is a product of actual emotion. And he’s never been very good at expressing actual human emotion.

I figure I need to say something before this man falls apart in front of me. Before he embarrasses that painting of Nelson Hatch. “I’m not comfortable talking about this right now Professor. And especially not here.”

“Isabelle,” he begins, still rubbing his eyes. “There’s absolutely no reason why we shouldn’t discuss this now.”

I want to say the words immediately, but it takes a good ten seconds before my brain can force my mouth open. “Claude is gone Professor.”

I don’t know what response I’d hoped to receive from him, but he chooses to remain motionless; his face still buried within his hands.

“Did you hear what I said Professor? Claude is gone! I came home yesterday and he’d simply vanished. I don’t want to think he leapt out the window to his death, but there’s no other possible explanation.”

Nickwelter adjusts himself, yet his movement is almost imperceptible. He’s not sure what he wants to say next; he knows how much that bird means to me. When he finally speaks though, his words are not what I expect. “Why do you always do that? You might think I haven’t noticed, but I have. Why can’t you just say my name Isabelle?”

I want to say it’s because I don’t know it anymore, but I realize how stupid that would sound.

What better way to forget a memory then to start with a name?

I quickly come to the conclusion that not only had Nickwelter seen me in the hall with Templeton yesterday, but that he had most likely seen me with him on other occasions as well. It’s also very probable that this is the only reason that he’s made the decision he has: Nickwelter has never seen me with another man before. Not once have I presented myself as being unavailable for him. I’ve never seemed unattainable.

I’ve never changed since the day we met.

But just like with the Greater Prairie-Chicken (Tympanuchus cupido), it’s the female that will choose her mate. It is not the male that gets to choose to be with Isabelle Donhelle in this scenario. Not Professor Nickwelter. Not Templeton. I tell myself that this is entirely my decision alone.

If Templeton hadn’t followed me into The Strangest Feeling that night.

Nickwelter doesn’t wait for a response from me though; he’s still just hanging onto his own last words. “You think I haven’t noticed. But I’ve noticed.”

“Listen to me Professor. All this time, I’d always thought it was supposed to be you that needed to change. I thought that if you’d only left your wife, I could be happy with what we had. If only you’d actually taken me out somewhere in public, I could start to feel like I was special. But I’ve realized now after all this time that it was me that needed to change. It was up to me to evolve. Your leaving Beth won’t make any difference at all.”

“But I’ve already left her. I slept in my car again last night! What are you saying Bella? That I’ve made a mistake?”

“Isn’t it obvious?”

“No, it’s not. I love you.”

“No!” I can’t help but rise from my seat. The chair falls over behind me, and I raise my finger to him, cutting him off. “You do not get to say those words to me! Not now. Not after this long. Not after this much history has already been thrown behind us Professor!” Not after Templeton Rate beat you to it and said the very same words to me just last night.

“Please keep your voice down Isabelle. Someone’s likely to hear you.”

I lift the chair with both hands and stand it back up. Taking a quick peak out the window into the hall, I also hope no one’s passed by to hear me raise my voice.

“Isabelle…I’m sorry for your bird, but do you really think that I deserve to be treated this way?”

If Professor Nickwelter had been telling this story, it would be really, really sad.

“I think you do Professor. I really do. And you know what else? I know what it is that’s gotten you to act this way. I know that you’re not comfortable with the fact that I’m involved with someone else now.”

“Involved. Yes, I heard all about your antics in the library a couple of weeks ago. Tell me, what do you really know about this Templeton Rate fellow?”

“I know enough to make me happy.”

“More than that though. Where did he come from?”

“Schenectady. New York.”

“Does he have a job?”

“He’s a doorman.”

“A doorman?”

“Yes. He works at a hotel somewhere in this city.”

“Well, that certainly sounds believable. But is he really any more your type than I am?”

I give him a moment, to let him think I’m actually considering what my answer will be. To let him assume I care more right now than I actually do. “People change Professor,” I say, folding my arms in front of me. “And none of this is really any of your business anymore.”

Nickwelter ponders our conversation a bit longer. It’s almost as though he’s adding up all of the questions he could ask me right now, and calculating all of the possible answers I could give him in return, figuring out the best course of action. He’s smart like that. And he’s proud too, he always has been. He’s not one to admit defeat so quickly. “Do you remember what happened when someone had found out that you and I were involved with one another Isabelle?”

Of course I do. I remember the whole chain of embarrassing events. One of Professor Nickwelter’s students had found out about our clandestine relationship, and anonymously reported it to Anton Frye, the Dean of Hawthorne University. Nickwelter was given a temporary leave of absence while the school’s board sorted out the details of exactly what the repercussions should be. It wouldn’t have been such a big deal if it weren’t for the fact that I was far and away the top student in the program at the time. This didn’t seem to reflect well on Professor Nickwelter’s grading system, since he was the head of the department at the time, but it also didn’t reflect well upon the rest of the school and its faculty.

Even though our relationship had continued, Beth Nickwelter had forgiven her husband’s adultery, he was admitted back into the university, albeit in a less-prestigious role, and I had graduated at the top of my class.

Now it’s me who holds the coveted position as head of the ornithology department. I know exactly where Professor Nickwelter is trying to go with this, but I still need to hear it. “What are you saying, Professor?”

“I’m saying that was the worst year of my life Isabelle.” He takes a good hard look at the walls around him. “That was the year I didn’t have all of this. This school means everything to me. And it means everything to you too. I would hate to think that you might make a mistake and lose it all like I did.”

From his office window, I catch a streaking glimpse of what appears to be an American Oystercatcher (Haematopus palliatus) sprinting across the lawn. But that can’t be right; oystercatchers aren’t territorial to this area at this time of the year. It quickly disappears into some bushes, and I wonder if I just saw what I thought I saw. Its large bright red bill is unmistakable, but I can only assume that it was something else. Although the way my emotions are going right now, it could have just been a dog off its leash for all I know.

Professor Nickwelter motions to the portrait on the wall to my right. “Don’t you know how embarrassed this picture of Nelson Hatch makes me feel? I can feel him watching me everyday. And I know he would be disappointed by the things I’ve done to his school. I would give anything for the opportunity to have my proper place in Hawthorne back. Anything.”

Running across the lawn now is Jerry Humphries, and I know he must be chasing after the bird that plunged into the shrubbery. It definitely wasn’t a dog, but there should also be no reason for Humphries to be holding any American oystercatchers in the bird sanctuary.

“Are you listening to what I’m saying Isabelle?” Nickwelter continues, seemingly unaware that I was focused on something other than him. “Don’t you realize the price you might pay for getting involved with Templeton Rate?”

I open the door to leave. “You and I are finished here Professor. You need to go back to your wife. You’re not going to survive many more cold nights sleeping in the back of your car and living on cafeteria food.” I take a step out into the hall, but I turn back to him before leaving for good. “And I really hope you weren’t threatening me Professor. You can’t afford to fall any further than you already have.” Defiantly, I slam his office door behind me. I can hear the hooded merganser rattling against the wall. I also hear what can only be Nickwelter’s fist slamming onto his desk, and then pushing his lamp onto the floor. The ceramic base smashes. The bulb breaks. And I keep walking away.

I can’t help but wonder what it is that Nickwelter will tell his wife, should he return home tonight. I wonder what I’ll be able to say to him the next time we talk, and how long I’ll be able to avoid that future encounter.

NEXT CHAPTER