Molt – Chapter Eighteen

The Glorious Age of Templeton Rate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s absolute chaos.

It’s utterly overwhelming.

It has to be Templeton Rate.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Fuck you,” he replies.

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

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

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

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

“No I don’t. Where’s Templeton?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maybe it’s my fault?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s Isabelle. Let me in.”

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

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

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

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

Like a hiding place.

Like a death trap.

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

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

“Mitchie let us in.”

Mitchie? Who’s Mitchie?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Bella?”

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

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

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

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

“What is it?” I ask him, terrified.

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

“A tool? A tool for what?”

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

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

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

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

Me?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Come with me.”

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

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

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

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

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

“See?” Templeton asks.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Even though they were twice as bad.

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

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

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

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

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

Claude flaps his re-grown wing with enthusiasm.

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

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

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

But I did.

If only Claude had stayed missing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or is it getting worse and worse?

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

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

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

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

“No.”

“But how did—”

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

“No.”

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

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

The glorious age of Templeton Rate.

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

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

“I thought you said Professor Nickwelter killed her?”

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

I hate it when he talks like this.

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

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

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

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

“What book?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One for sorrow, two for mirth,

Three for a funeral, four for a birth,

Five for silver, six for gold,

Seven for a secret not to be told,

Eight for heaven, nine for hell,

And ten for the devil’s own sel’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Professor Nickwelter?

NEXT CHAPTER

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Molt – Chapter Seventeen

Blackbird’s Grill

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Even if it kills me.

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

Blackbird singing in the dead of night

Take these sunken eyes and learn to see

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

Take these broken wings and learn to fly

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

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

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

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

“Cindey Fellowes?”

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

“Just seeing what’s new.”

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

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

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

“It’s Boston, actually. But close.”

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

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

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

“What is that, rocks?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You mean, The Question, right?”

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

“I have no idea.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NEXT CHAPTER

Molt – Chapter Sixteen

The Constant City

SATURDAY, NOVEMBER EIGHTH. I had to fly from Boston to the Pierre Elliot Trudeau International Airport in Montréal and then connect to the Sept-Îles airport before I remembered why I hate coming home. Well, aside from the obvious reasons. From Sept-Îles, it’s still an hour-and-a-half-long bus ride to Ville Constance. I’m sitting on a Greyhound with a cold cup of airport coffee and staring out the window, remembering these familiar winter skies above me. I imagine my parents inside the warm Donhelle home right now: my father sitting in his chair watching the hockey game while my mother prepares dinner. Same as it always is in the Constant City.

I decided on Wednesday night that I would make the trip home this weekend. A few days away from everything that was falling apart around me in Boston would certainly be good for me right now. I haven’t been home since last Christmas, but even that was three years removed from the time before. I remember coming back to my apartment last year and telling Claude that my parents would be coming to see me the next time. He didn’t care though, he was just happy to be home too, after spending a week at the Nickwelters’ house.

This time around I don’t have to worry about who’ll be looking after him while I’m gone.

From the Greyhound station in Ville Constance, I place the pre-arranged phone call, letting my parents know that I’ve finally arrived. The conversation is short, and my father tells me he’ll come pick me up just as soon as the first period is over.

Across the street from the bus station is Saint Francis Elementary School. That old familiar hedge may be iced over, but it still taunts me. I wonder how many kids have cut their faces and scraped their knees and torn their coats since I’ve been through there? I think about carrying my bags over to the school right now and giving it another run, but then I remember just how good change has been for me lately.

There’d been no sign of Templeton Rate or Professor Nickwelter for the rest of the week. No further visits from Anton Frye or Detective Dunphey. I hadn’t followed up with Jerry Humphries about the strange goings-on in the south lab, and I completely forgot about those six swans covered with the tarp until now. The death of Becky Chandler had been made public on Wednesday morning, and I had a long talk about everything that afternoon with Steffen James. At first he didn’t want to discuss it, but I think he could tell I needed to talk to somebody. Uncomfortably, he listened to me drone on about my relationship with Templeton, from start to finish. He sat through everything I had to say. And after it all, Steffen was the one who convinced me to take some time off.

Now I’m standing alone in the dark and cold and empty bus depot. Even the Greyhound has left by the time my father pulls up in the familiar family car. The same car since I was twelve.

Same as it always is in the Constant City.

He pops the trunk open and steps out as I toss my bags in the back. “ ‘Allo Bella! It’s good to see you again.” He gives me a hug, which I have to admit, is a nice feeling, and one that I haven’t experienced too often outside of Ville Constance. But he is quick to let go. “Hop in. We can still make it back for the second period.” A part of me was hoping that Dad would have grown his beard back by now, but he still keeps his face shaved clean to this day.

We’re home in another seven minutes, which included a minute more of conversation at the most. My father is happy to tell me that the Boston Bruins are playing in Montréal tonight, and they play each other again tomorrow in Boston. He calls it a ‘home-and-home’ series, which strikes a strange parallel in my mind: I think that this weekend will be my own personal home-and-home series.

“What’s the score Dad?” I ask, but no possible answer could really make me care either way.

“Zero-zero,” he says, stepping on the gas.

Touching the freezing window with the tips of my fingers, I peer through the glass. As much grief as I give this town, I’m honestly still surprised that nothing appears to have changed at all. I’ll give it the benefit of the doubt however, since it is dark outside, and it doesn’t seem as though they’ve ever put in more than the familiar six streetlights I recognize along this road.

As soon as I enter the house the smells hit me. It’s pine trees. It’s lemons. It’s roses. It’s a roast beef cooking in the oven. It’s the hardwood floors that have just been washed and waxed, the carpets that were recently vacuumed. The footprints that were sure to have been on the carpeted stairs have all been carefully brushed away; all of the fibers no doubt meticulously combed forward. I want to run my finger along the top of the picture frame, but I know exactly what I’ll find: nothing. The cork coasters are already pre-set and waiting for me on the coffee table.

And then Mom comes out of the kitchen, in her famous pink ‘MOM’ apron, arms spread wide as a Wandering Albatross (Diomedea exulans). As dismayed as I sound, I look forward to the oncoming embrace, and hope I can get a bit more from my mother than what my father had graciously provided earlier.

“Bella! It’s so good to have you home, sweetheart!”

“Hi mom. I guess it’s about time, isn’t it?”

“At the very least, you could start returning your mother’s phone calls.”

“I know. I’m sorry about that.”

“Why don’t you get your father to take those bags upstairs for you?”

We both notice Dad has already sunk back into his chair and all attention has been diverted back to the hockey game. “That’s okay. I’ll bring them up myself.”

“Okay. Make sure you wash up too.” She turns back to the timer on the oven, although I’m sure her internal clock is far more accurate. “Dinner will be ready in six-and-a-half minutes.”

“Of course it will.”

“Oh, did you see how nice the table looks?” My mother proudly directs my attention into the dining room. It’s the same table setting they’ve used since I was nine.

Same as it always is in the Constant City.

“Very nice. It’s good to see you mom.”

Opening my bedroom door, I’m not the least bit surprised to find that the sheets on my bed are the same ones that were there when I’d left twelve years ago. Nothing that used to be in this room seems to have been taken out, and nothing new has been added. At first glance, it appears as though my old bedroom has been unaffected by time, yet I can tell that something is, well…off.

My reading lamp sits in the same position, angled just so I could read my Power Of Science textbooks and the Audubon Society Encyclopedia before bed.

My stuffed pig remains on the top of my dresser, eyes to the door, exactly where he has always sat.

The same cutout paper stars still hang from the same ceiling light.

The same old tape player sits on the ledge beneath my window, the ledge where I would sit and wonder what kind of a world was really outside; out beyond Ville Constance. One night I saw the neighbors across from us making out in their kitchen, which I considered to be pretty exciting when I was twelve. I see their kitchen lit up now, and all I can visualize is Becky Chandler with her head in the sink. I close the same old curtains to try and block out that horrible reminder.

A few colored drawings I scribbled in school when I was eight are still pinned on the same spot of the same corkboard above the same small desk where I would sit and do all of my homework. There’s a drawing of our house, with me standing outside by myself. There’s a pond of ducks, even though I can tell now that they’re horribly inaccurate and extremely off model. There’s even a drawing that Antonia herself had scribbled during one of the dozens of times that she stayed with us. I think it was supposed to be an elephant, but it’s hard to tell since it has far more spider-like qualities. I remember telling her that I would pin it up at this very desk, so she’d never lose it. But Antonia’s not here anymore and her purple pachyderm-arachnid is.

There’s some notches carved into the doorframe that marked my growth spurts when I was young. Tiny dates are scribbled beside each notch in pencil, in my father’s printing. I can visualize myself getting younger and younger as I follow them down with my fingertip. There’s a few more that had been added by some of the children who stayed with us, but they never returned to see how much they’d grown. They would find new homes, where they would probably pick up in their new rooms where they left off in mine. Those marks are scattered all around in the middle, but mine dominate the highest points.

There’s one mark that’s slightly above where the top of my head is now, and I remember adding that one the last time I was here. I don’t know why I did it, but I smile a little when I think about it now. Of course, the reason as to why I appear to have shrunk since then is a mystery. I try to remember what shoes I was wearing a year ago, not that my mother would let any shoes go beyond the front entrance.

Everything is as it was. And yet there’s still something in this room that feels oddly out of place. Something unusually usual, and I don’t know what it could possibly be.

I turn off the light and walk back out into the hall. There’s a boy, maybe seven or eight years old, coming out of the other bedroom. I guess I’ll be sharing the bathroom with him for the next couple of days.

“Hi there,” I say to him, realizing I don’t really know how to talk to kids any more.

“Hello!” he says with unexpected jubilation. “Are you my sister?”

“Well, I am for this weekend. My name is Isabelle. What’s your name?”

“Claude.” Of course it is, I think to myself. Why wouldn’t it be? “And it’s dinner time!” he yelps, and he runs down the stairs like he’s been waiting his whole life to be fed. He’s about as excited for dinner as Dad is about the hockey game, as mom is about her table setting, and as I am about taking these next three days to avoid my life back home in Boston.

The four of us sit around the table passing plates of roast beef, mashed potatoes and corn. Mom scoops servings onto my brother Claude’s plate, and he gobbles it all up at practically the same speed. Dad continues to watch the game from the table, which my mother would never have allowed when I lived here. The conversation is typical, and I have to put on a brave face when they ask me about work and Claude.

“Who’s Claude?” asks the boy of the same name. The name that’s almost making me sick at this point. The name that’s got me craving yet another cigarette. I actually bought my first pack last week, and brought another one with me for this trip. It’s lying inside my bag upstairs, just waiting for my first moment of weakness. The familiar pink plastic lighter sits in there too, having returned to its hometown now as well.

My mother explains that it’s the name of my parrot, and the kid is curiously amazed at the coincidence. Even if coincidences are almost entirely beyond his understanding at this point in his life.

Picking at my corn, I somberly say, “Claude is dead mom.” At that exact instant, the Montréal Canadiens score a goal. Dad cheers and accidentally flings a piece of roast across the room. My mother loses a bit of potato from her mouth as her jaw drops open in reaction to both my comment and the food on her floor.

“Did you see that?” my father asks anyone willing to listen. “What a goal!”

“That’s…awful,” my mother says, resurrecting the conversation. “I’m sorry. When did that happen?”

“You know, I don’t really want to talk about it mom.”

“Oh. Okay then sweetheart.”

“A parrot is a bird.” Claude says, as bits of chewed-up corn spew from his mouth. As oblivious as this kid is to my feelings on the subject, I have to give my father some credit for being even more oblivious.

“That’s right,” Mom tells him, wiping his face with her napkin. “Isabelle teaches people all about birds. That’s her job.”

“I know everything about birds,” he says to me.

I’m almost impressed by his enthusiasm. “Well, you probably know more than some of my students do,” I try my best to not think of any one student in particular.

With his fork, Claude spears what’s left of the roast beef on his plate and holds it up to me inquisitively. “What kind of bird is this?” he asks.

After my parents have gone to bed, I sneak outside onto the front porch to have a cigarette. Smoking has been the only thing that’s kept me relatively calm all week. Steffen James was considerate enough to pretend he didn’t even notice. My parents don’t drink coffee, and I’ve gone almost all day so far without a cup. I had a cup at the Tim Horton’s in Sept-Îles, but that’s a far cry from the Starbucks I’ve grown used to in Boston. At least at Starbucks you can control your own cream and sugar ratios; the girl at the Tim Horton’s insisted I decide between ordering it black, single-single, double-double, triple-triple or any of the combined variations. As if the commoners could not be trusted with their own cream and sugar. Canada seems so strange to me now. My muscles have been twitching all evening, so I’m hoping that a cigarette will help put everything at ease for just a bit longer.

It’s not long before my mother comes outside and catches me. It shouldn’t be a surprise though, she probably heard me coughing from her bedroom. I hide the cigarette behind my back, worried about getting busted, and that she might send me back up to my room.

“What are you doing out here sweetheart? It’s freezing outside!”

“I’m just doing some thinking mom.” It’s the most generic answer I can give, and only I hope it’s enough to satisfy her curiosity. But I should know that nothing much gets by my mother, ever since she told me she’s always known it was a hickey that she found on my neck that one Valentine’s Day so many years ago. “What are you doing up?” I ask her.

“I was just washing the floors,” she responds, and follows that by sniffing at the air outside on the porch. “Is that smoke?” she asks. “Were you smoking?”

Embarrassingly, I swing the cigarette back around to show her the evidence. God, I don’t miss being a kid at all anymore. “Yeah mom. I’ve picked up a few bad habits here and there along the way.”

“Are there any good habits?” my mother asks, as though she’s already accepted the fact that her daughter could possibly be flawed. Or maybe as an indication that she’s acknowledged her own bad habits over the years.

Either way, I take another puff, hoping that the smoke will be enough to take the blame for these tears in my eyes. It’s not though.

“Are you okay Isabelle?”

“That’s a tough one to answer mom.” It’s hard to admit anything to my mother. And especially hard to admit that I’ve finally changed after all these years, since I left this small town behind me. “I guess I’m just hitting a rough patch.” Not that she can relate.

“Everybody hits those patches, sweetheart.” She sits down on one of the two cold, frosted plastic porch chairs. A feeling comes over me: the strangest feeling that I should’ve already had this conversation with my mother. Like we were supposed to have had this talk years ago, but just accidentally missed out on it.

“I think this is a bit more than that,” I confess. I go on to tell my mom all about the foolish affair with Professor Nickwelter: how it all started, and even how it ended. I tell her about my birthday a month ago, and when I met Templeton Rate and how I thought a change would do me some good. I tell her how wrong I was. I tell her about the awful night in the Salem graveyard on Halloween, and that a student of mine was murdered. Murdered! I can barely even believe it myself as I say the words. I tell my mother how I ended things with Templeton because I was afraid of losing my job. There was far too much at stake. A relationship shouldn’t feel so costly, should it? I listen to myself ramble on, and I think that maybe I’m being selfish. I’m hoping for nothing more than a relationship, when there are people in this world without anything at all. A woman has been killed. Professor Nickwelter, a good friend of mine like it or not, is accused and missing. There’s a litter of angels in Ville Constance, just hoping for a family.

“Sometimes things change,” is what I get from my mother. “Whether you want them to…whether you think they should or not.” But I don’t want to hear that. Especially not in this town. She stares out into the street, lit only by the dimming lights of the neighborhood. From somewhere, there’s a warm breeze that sweeps up onto the porch. It carries a leaf that whirls around the corner of the house. I’m convinced that I’d seen that very same leaf fifteen years ago. Same as it always is in the Constant City.

I toss the cigarette into the neighbor’s yard. When I turn back to my mother, I’m surprised to find that she’s now holding one too, and trying to light it up behind the shield of her hands.

“Mom? What are you doing?”

“Everyone’s got habits,” she says with the cigarette hanging out of her mouth. Finally, she lights the thing, and leans back in the porch chair with a smile. “But not all of them are this good.”

“When did you start smoking?”

“I always have. Sometimes things don’t need to change in order to appear different. Sometimes things remain the same, but go unnoticed.”

I don’t know what to say to her; I just find myself trying to imagine my mother and I sitting on this same porch fifteen years ago sharing a cigarette together. But I can’t. It’s just too implausible. I don’t have to come up with anything more to say though, because she’s not through yet.

“Your father and I are getting a divorce.”

What?” Thanks mom. Thanks for the perfect capper to my week. “What are you talking about?”

“Things haven’t been working for a long time Isabelle. We finally decided that we’d both be better off if we were apart.”

If my mother had been telling this story, it would be bursting with the unexpected.

“Like I said,” she continues. “Some things always remain the same, but simply go unnoticed.”

“I don’t know what to say. When were you planning on telling me?”

She takes a long drag and exhales it like a seasoned pro. “Maybe you should call your mother back every once in a while.”

Thanks for not holding a grudge Mom. That’s sweet of you. “The night Claude went missing, I also noticed that my phone had been unplugged,” I tell her. “The more I’ve thought about it though, the more I’ve considered that maybe it was Templeton who had done it. Even if I can’t figure out why.”

“Honestly Isabelle, it doesn’t sound like this man was a very good choice for you.” She’s right of course, and more I think about Templeton Rate, the more I realize he scares me more than anything. “What are you going to do when you get back to Boston?” she asks.

Finally, I sit down on the chair next to her. What am I going to do? I think back to the last conversation I had with Templeton, in the university parking lot. He told me that everyone would always believe in something different. And he knew about Professor Nickwelter, even before the whole horrible story had been made public. In the cemetery, he told me he believed in angels. He told me that he couldn’t force me to believe in the same things he did, but that he could make me accept them. I remember the night he told me he loved me. I remember waking up to find him by the window with tears in his eyes. The morning we sat on the sidewalk outside his apartment, he told me that he could see traces of life everywhere, when I could only see death. The dead pigeon. The wilted flowers left for the dead girl. The frog purse. Casualties of life, is what he called them. He asked me what was more important: life or death? But I didn’t have an answer, and he never gave me one. We were only a block away from The Strangest Feeling. From the place where he told me there wasn’t any right answers for anything in this world. He told me the amount of things that we don’t know outnumbers the amount of things we do. He told me if I was going to spread my wings I’d better have a safe place to land. He told me he was better than stale cheese bread and watery pea soup. He made his first appearance in my classroom and told my entire class that molting can be psychological. A temporary change, or a permanent one. He once asked me if I’d ever dreamt of flying. And I told him everything he wanted to know. I told him all my dreams. I opened myself up and told him everything I believed in. And in return, I believed every word he said to me.

I try to narrow down the exact moment where I went wrong. That one critical event that I can blame for getting me to where I am right now. It wasn’t when I tried out for the Doneau High basketball team. It was much, much later.

I’m certain now that it has something to do with all of the blue checkmarks. Templeton Rate knew far more than he should have known, and I blame myself for that.

My mother’s question still rings in my head. What am I going to do when I get back to Boston? “I’m going to figure out the truth behind Templeton Rate,” is what I tell her.

Before I head back upstairs to go to bed, I recall the feeling that something in my bedroom had felt out of place. But I couldn’t put my finger on it until now. I ask my mother, “You’ve been sleeping in my bedroom, haven’t you?”

“Yes. Ever since you left here twelve years ago.”

If I hadn’t left Ville Constance.

“Good night mom.” I kiss her on the cheek, and I go back inside the house.

NEXT CHAPTER

Molt – Chapter Twenty

Full Circle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I was just making sure.”

“How did you get in here?”

“The same way you did, I suppose.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Not anymore?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That man is absolutely crazy.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But…why would you do all of that?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why not me?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s right,” she sniffs.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I won’t,” I tell her. “I promise.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NEXT CHAPTER

Molt – Chapter Nineteen

Frightmolt

“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.’ ”

“What’s that?”

“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.”

“What? Where?”

“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.

NEXT CHAPTER

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 Fourteen

The Weeping Angel

FRIDAY, OCTOBER THIRTY-FIRST. A thick screen of milky white fog covers the WELCOME TO SALEM sign, but I knew the instant we had arrived in Salem, as it was marked by a bat flying straight into the windshield. The only way it could have felt more like Halloween at this moment would be if the Headless Horseman were following along behind us. He just might be too, if the fake cobwebs that Templeton decorated the entirety of my car with weren’t preventing me from seeing the road behind us.

With Templeton behind the wheel, it had only been a thirty-five minute drive from Boston to Salem, but it seemed as long as the boat trip to Hades must feel like. Through the gate at Lake Avernus. Although I was hoping our destination wouldn’t be nearly as final.

The buildings in Salem have what is often referred to as ‘charm,’ but they only seem old and run-down to me. And yet, all of the boxy First Period and Gothic Revival architecture seems to take on an absolute feeling, as though something horrible had happened in each and every one of these houses at some point in history. Were there really ghosts behind every wall in Salem? Or does this place simply have the knack for playing tricks on one’s mind?

The city of Salem is an odd one. Many people still associate it with the Salem Witch Trials of 1692; and that’s the first thing I thought of too when Templeton suggested this trip. But even if that’s not all that the city has to offer, they do a good job at making it appear otherwise. Salem police cars have witch logos on their doors. We drive by a public school and I notice the name: Witchcraft Heights Elementary. There’s a ‘GO WITCHES!’ sign hanging beside the high school football field.

I take another Three Musketeers from the warm dashboard and gobble it down as I try to confirm with Templeton just what exactly it is we’re doing here tonight. “Tell me again why I agreed to come here?” My Sunda Varanus blend, an unanticipated earthy complexity of smooth-bodied flavor, had been empty five minutes into the drive.

“You know you didn’t have to come along,” he replies, with his usual absence of romance. Why is it that the incantation of the words Templeton speaks makes it sound as though he had not only planned to come to Salem alone, but that having me here with him bothers him to no end? I try and find reasons why I shouldn’t want to be here with him, but I’m finding it more and more difficult to feel as though I don’t need Templeton anymore. It’s funny to think about how quickly people can change.

We follow Lafayette Street all the way to Salem Common, where we find ourselves right in the middle of what Templeton had referred to as the Haunted Happenings festival. It’s a steaming cauldron full of parading candlelit walking tours, kids dressed as ghouls, pirates and Harry Potters, vendor tables full of charms, voodoo dolls, kettle corn, pies and candy apples, and the odd booth set up by local psychic readers. I shiver as the eerie music and wicked laughter streaming through the air scratches along my skin.

There’s a row of zombies beside us, stumbling along the sidewalk. Their makeup is grotesque, with open wounds and faces covered with blood. One appears to have taken a gunshot to the skull, and it reminds me a little of the male Hairy Woodpecker (Picoides villosus), which is easily spotted because of the red patch of feathers on the back of his head. Unlike zombies though, the woodpecker has probably the strongest brain in all the animal kingdom. They lack cerebrospinal fluid, so their brains are packed tightly, preventing it from bouncing against the skull and causing damage when it pecks wood at twenty blows per second. Although far less advanced, I imagine the brains of these zombies are probably about the same size as a woodpecker’s. They try to entertain us by swarming around my car, slowing us down. Templeton just lays on the horn and speeds up a little, almost running over their sticky, blood-covered legs. A few of the zombies break character, and curse at us as the car peels around the corner.

Templeton parks in a small, empty lot. I direct his attention to one of the signs clearly indicating that parking is not permitted here due to the festivities. He quickly dismisses the warning, and tells me, “Don’t worry about it. We’re not bothering anyone.”

I realize then that all of his “don’t worry about its” are starting to add up, and they’re really beginning to grate my nerves.

He turns the engine off, pockets my keys and gets out of the car. He seems to take in everything around us, as if for the first time. With all of my upper-body strength, I push the frozen passenger door open and step out into the cold night.

“Let’s get a look at you then,” Templeton says, turning in my direction. These are the first words he’s spoken in the last three days that show any interest in me at all. I flatten my costume down with my palms, still warm from holding them against the heater for the last half hour.

There’s a costume shop on Newbury Street that opens up for six weeks of the year around Halloween, and I stopped in for the first time on Wednesday after work to pick something out. Spotting an intricate pair of sparkling, feathered wings on one of the mannequins, I decided to start there. Angels intrigue me, as they seem like nothing more than the perfect marriage of humans and birds. The inclusion of the attached glittering sequins aside, these wings would certainly never be adequate for an angel’s flight. The elliptical wing shape is completely inaccurate, as the low aspect ratio of elliptical wings on birds allows for tight maneuvering in confined spaces, such as dense vegetation.

I put my mastery of the science aside, and I bought the angel wings. The rest of the costume didn’t matter much to me at the time, so I finished the look off with a green knee-length velour dress with sleeves so long that they cover my hands and black fishnet stockings. Of course, now that I’m standing in a Salem parking lot on this cold October night, I’m beginning to wonder why I’ve never seen pictures of angels wearing insulated pants and ski jackets.

“It’s a good look for you Bella,” he says. It might be unintentional, but Templeton sometimes says the sweetest things to me at oddest of times. And for once, he isn’t following it up with something rude.

If my costume had been telling this story, it would be awfully close to the truth.

I try to straighten my secondary covert feathers, brushing them downwards. “I think the wings got bent on the ride up here.”

Templeton studies them for a moment. “You do realize that the mechanics of those wings wouldn’t help you achieve flight, don’t you?” Maybe this is the insult I was expecting, but if it is, then it’s an extremely educated one with very little threat behind it. Wing shape aside, an angel could never become airborne, since they lack the powerful muscles attached to a deep-keeled breastbone. And angels don’t have the hollow bones and toothless jaws as birds do, an evolutionary development that cuts down on body mass.

Blue checkmark.

“I know,” I say to him. “It’s pretty obvious, isn’t it?”

“Come on, let’s get moving.” Templeton takes my sleeve-covered hand, and we walk into the crazed streets of Salem. “It wouldn’t have killed you to show a little more leg, you know.”

“Unfortunately for your libido, I’m not that kind of angel. I’m the good kind.”

“Says you.”

I should point out the fact that Templeton isn’t wearing a costume tonight. It seemed so important to him that I dress up for Halloween, but when he showed up at my apartment earlier wearing nothing but his usual attire, I had to ask him:

ME: “You said if I was going to come with you, I would need a costume. Correct?”

HIM: “That’s right.”

ME: “Well, what about you then? What are you supposed to be?”

HIM: “I’m nothing.”

ME: “If I’m going to be something, you can’t be nothing. It doesn’t work that way.”

HIM: “Fine. If it makes you happy, I’m a pedestrian.”

ME: “A Pedestrian? You can’t be a pedestrian for Halloween if I’m going to walk around dressed like this. That’s a total copout Templeton.”

HIM: “Maybe so, but was it ever agreed upon that I would be wearing a costume tonight?”

ME: “Well…no. But that’s not the point. As far as I’m concerned, you’re dressed as a hypocrite.”

HIM: “Fine then. I’m a hypocrite. Can we just get going already?”

Templeton holds onto my hand as he navigates us through the streets, winding his way seemingly unnoticed through the costumed crowd in true pedestrian fashion.

The colors, smells and sounds are overwhelming my senses. The people of Salem live for this moment; as though they’ve planned all year for this festival, and as soon as it’s over they’ll begin plans for the next one. Their costumes range from the frightening to the playful, and everything in between. I see witches with noses shaped like those of the Long-Billed Curlew (Numenius americanus). I see a can-can dancer with the train of an Indian Peafowl (Pavo cristatus) on her head. I see a child dressed as a bat, but with large leathery wings on his back like a bird, rather under his arms like a bat’s should be. All of them make my angel costume appear so meager by comparison. There are firecrackers exploding everywhere. Dogs are barking. Werewolves are howling. Crazed denizens of the night run right up into my face and shake their tongues, hoping for a scare. Smoke machines are generating so much thick smoke that I can’t even see where we parked the car anymore. Scents of sulfur, incense and kids smoking pot all mix together and irritate my nostrils. Children bump me. People push me. There’s broken glass on the road and it crackles between the snow and my footsteps.

I take in a long, deep breath as soon as we emerge from the dense crowds. Templeton leads me to a cemetery, just one of many in Salem. The old rusted gate is locked up, seemingly since the turn of the century. Last century, that is. Templeton hops over the gate, waving for me to follow.

“There’s no way I’m going in there,” I say.

“Come on.” He urges me from the other side. “Why not?”

“Because it’s not right. That’s a graveyard Templeton.”

“So what?”

I don’t want to tell him that being here right now only reminds me of one thing; and that’s Claude, and the fact that he’s still missing. Already twice now tonight, Templeton has asked me to stop brooding over my loss. “I just don’t want to be thinking about death at a time like this,” is what I tell him. “That’s all.”

“Are you kidding me? There’s no better time than this. Come on.”

I still haven’t spoken to Templeton yet about his strange behavior at my place on Monday night, nor did I make a deal out of the fact that he got up and left me without a saying a word. I’ve gotten used to the fact that this man operates a little differently than most people. And if I asked him, he certainly wouldn’t give me a straight answer anyway.

As Templeton helps me over the gate I tear my stocking on one of the protruding metal spikes. This cemetery must be one of the oldest ones in the city, and I can tell there must not be a groundskeeper here anymore since the weeds are growing everywhere. Many of the tombstones are all but covered in a splattering of overgrown dandelions, ivy and Virginia creeper. What really strikes me is the richness and elegance of these old gravestones: highly decorated and elaborately carved sandstone, marble and limestone markers, all ranging in size. This cemetery is not just filled with uninteresting run-of-the-mill tablet-style headstones; there’s a wide assortment of scattered, beautiful stone-carved markers.

Many of these are embellished with avian figures, popular amongst cemetery symbolism. Sitting birds on a headstone generally signify eternal life, while birds in flight commonly symbolize resurrection. Specific types of birds can represent different ideas altogether. The large tombstone I’m standing next to right now has a dove with an olive branch, a symbol for peace.

Templeton’s already forty feet ahead of me. “Where are you going, anyway?” I call out to him. He doesn’t acknowledge my question though. He keeps walking away from me, disappearing into the fog.

I run to catch up, dodging gravestones as best I can. I pass a tombstone with a Rooster (Gallus gallus) on it, which represents awakening or resurrection. I see a Bank Swallow (Riparia riparia) and I instantly recall its purpose as a sign for hope, fertility and the renewal of life. There is another headstone embellished with a Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) wrapped in stars and stripes, signifying liberty and eternal vigilance.

After a few minutes of cautious footsteps, I find Templeton waiting for me. He’s smoking a cigarette and sitting on another forgotten grave off in the back of the cemetery. This one is a large sandstone block, on top of which is a four-foot tall sculpture of an angel weeping. Her wings are spread high above her head, with one of them only half the size, having crumbled apart after years of neglect. Her tears of poison ivy wind all the way from her hands to her mossy feet. It’s beautiful though, and one of the most striking statues in the entire graveyard.

The plaque on the stone block reads:

WILLIAM S. ENDICOTT: MAY 29, 1799 – OCT. 31, 1841.

ROSE M. ENDICOTT: JUN. 1, 1810 – OCT. 31, 1841.

Above each name is an etching of a winged face, which represents an effigy of the deceased souls, also known as the Flight of the Soul. I wonder what intriguing event transpired that William and Rose would both die on the same date, and today’s date no less. I’m also wondering why I ever agreed to come to this horrible place.

Templeton blows out a puff of smoke. The nicotine wisp blends seamlessly into the fog. “Do you ever think about the dead?” he muses.

I hope that this is a simple question that will quickly head somewhere else, because all I can envision in my head is Claude being uncovered behind a dumpster somewhere. I recall sitting outside Templeton’s apartment three weeks ago and I summon up the image of the dead pigeon with the crushed skull on the sidewalk. And I remember the bloody raven lying on my open textbook. Of course I think about death. “Isn’t that normal?”

“Yeah but…” he takes another drag of his cigarette, “…what’s the fucking point?”

“You mean, why we can’t all live forever? I think that would get pretty lackluster after a while. Imagine eight million years of this.”

My humorous attempt bounces off of him, unnoticed. He stamps the ground with his foot as he continues his thought. “All of these bodies buried beneath us had to die in order to get to where they are now. So what’s the reason for living for so long if all you’re doing is simply waiting for the end to come?”

“Is that what we’re doing right now?” I ask him. But more specifically, I ask, “Are you just waiting for the end?”

I don’t get an immediate response, but that’s fine. I honestly hadn’t gotten my hopes up that I would actually receive one. Templeton continues to smoke his cigarette, as though the question was never asked. The sounds of a thousand firecrackers pop and crackle in the distance. Bursts of light seep though the mist and reflect off of Templeton’s face. A cold shiver shoots up my spine when I imagine the hundreds of dead people lying no more than six feet below me.

“You seem uneasy Bella.” As much as I dislike hearing him call me Isabella, I think I’m even more bothered by Bella. There’s something about the way he says it that seems to scare me a little bit more. Especially tonight, given the setting.

“It’s this graveyard. You know I’m not comfortable being here.”

Templeton holds his cigarette out towards me. “You should have a smoke. It helps.”

“No thanks. I’ve never been one for peer pressure.”

“Come on,” he presses. “Just one puff is perfectly harmless. It’ll help calm your nerves.”

I take the lit cigarette from his steady hand, and examine it for a second before plugging it into my mouth. I inhale. I let the smoke wrap around my tongue. I can feel it winding down my throat. I almost feel like I’m choking, and I uncontrollably cough it back up. The exhaled smoke from my mouth mixes seamlessly with the fog surrounding us. The cigarette falls from my hand into a patch of snow at my feet, extinguishing it immediately. I imagine this is no different from anyone’s first attempt at smoking, but the taste in my mouth has a comfortable familiarity to it.

“You feel better now, don’t you?” Templeton asks, still perched on the grave marker.

“Not really,” I cough the words out. Now I’m thinking about a whole mess of new problems; like cancer, heart disease, emphysema and possible birth defects for my hypothetical children.

“You’ll get used to it.” He takes another cigarette from his pocket and lights it up. I’m staring again; I don’t know why I’m so compelled to watch his face whenever it’s illuminated.

“How long have you smoked anyway?”

He leans against the weeping angel now, thinking back to the point of time in question. “I don’t remember.” And just when I think he’s planning on leaving the subject there, giving me one of his usual non-informative answers, he continues. “I used to have a girlfriend in Schenectady. She was the one who first convinced me to start smoking. She said that she liked the taste of cigarettes on guys’ tongues when she kissed them.”

“That’s pretty gross,” I say, finding a disturbing familiarity in what this unnamed girlfriend had practiced.

“She had long blonde hair and green eyes, just like you. But her fingernails were always painted brown. I remember thinking how unusual it was for a girl to have these muddy brown nails. Then one day she painted them orange, and that was the day that I dumped her.”

“You broke up with her because she painted her nails a different color?”

“I broke up with her because she made out with practically every other guy in school.”

“When I was in high school, I had a boyfriend who smoked. I admit that I started to get used to that taste in his mouth when we kissed.”

“Oh yeah? What was his name?”

“That’s not really important,” I say meekly, thinking that I would probably die of embarrassment should Templeton find out Claude’s name. For the first time, I start to wonder what Templeton’s childhood must have been like. How many girlfriends did he have? How many had he slept with? How long had he lived in Schenectady? Did he have any siblings? Surely his home life could not have been any stranger than mine was. What did I have? Three hundred brothers and sisters? I’ve never discussed the finer details of my past with Templeton. Like I said before, our relationship was mostly just sex and homework anyway.

“Did your parents approve of this guy?” he asks me.

I wonder why he’s showing this sudden interest, but I can’t afford to miss out on what might pass as a meaningful conversation. “They only met him once,” I say. All I can envision is my parents in the halls of Doneau High, surprising me at my locker on Valentine’s Day. “It was awkward, to say the least.”

He takes another long drag on his cigarette. “Those kinds of things usually are.”

I think about my parents a little more, and I try my best to see things from their perspective for once. “Honestly though, I never really understood my mother and father very well. I couldn’t figure out how they could ever be happy with the lives that they had chosen. But I think I was like any other kid: I only ever wanted to be something special. Someone completely unlike my parents.”

“And now?” He asks, as though sensing a change of attitude.

“Now?” I want to tell Templeton that I think it was inevitable that I would feel the way I do now; that sooner or later everyone decides their parents really did have it all figured out. Now I’m yearning for the simplicity, for the normalcy of everything they had. I opt to leave out the more complicated details though. “Now I think that I need to re-evaluate those ideas. Now I think that I’m simply ready for a change.”

“I think you are too.” Templeton blows four or five smoke rings from his mouth. Aside from cartoon characters, I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone do that before.

“What about your parents Templeton? What are they like?”

His answer is short and delivered quickly. “My mom is dead.” He doesn’t seem fazed at all by the thought of it. “And I have no idea who my father was.”

“I’m sorry,” is the best that I can do. In a way, I guess Templeton is kind of an orphan himself. Just one more from the litter of angels.

“Don’t worry about it,” he says, as though he’s been telling people the same thing for
years. “It’s not your fault.”

I’m at a loss for words. Maybe I shouldn’t have tried to be so inquisitive about his past. I should have left our relationship where it was. I’m sure Templeton’s probably dealt with it for a long time now, and has already gotten over any negative feelings about his childhood.

Still, I can’t stop myself from saying it again, “I’m sorry.”

“What do you think ever happened to Claude?” He asks me. Even though I didn’t tell Templeton the name of the boy from my past with the cigarette tongue, that’s the first image that comes to mind. It doesn’t help that the two of them are so remarkably similar. Just replace the sandstone block he’s sitting on with the yellow electrical box behind the gymnasium. Voila.

But I come to my senses before answering him, and I recall the tragic disappearance of my bird on Monday night. “I have no idea what happened to him. I don’t really want to think about it.”

Templeton removes the infamous googly-eyed frog from his pocket, and suggestively rattles the change around inside of it. I still find it hard to believe how cruel he can be sometimes. Sadly though, I’m starting to get used to it.

“How can you even imply something so awful?” I ask him.

“Too soon?”

“It’s just all this talk about death. Can we please discuss something else?” I rub my arms, trying my best to not feel the cold.

But Templeton won’t change the subject for me. “He was locked in a cage and down to his last wing. Don’t you think that bird was ready to die? It’s like I said earlier: what’s the reason for living for so long if all you’re doing is waiting for it all to come to an end?”

“Well, I’m not ready to die! Is it so wrong for someone to try and find something in life to enjoy?”

“People don’t deal with death well enough. They’re all bound to it, but they just try and ignore it.”

“People like me you mean?”

“It’s everyone, Bella.”

I think back to our conversation on the sidewalk a few weeks ago. When he told me that I would only see the negativity surrounding death, whereas he would look for the signs of life instead. Now he seems to be contradicting his earlier beliefs. Templeton stuffs the frog back into his coat pocket.

The noise from the streets of Salem is so loud I’m finding it hard to focus. I can still hear the firecrackers and the children laughing and the witches cackling and the werewolves howling, all in celebration of the most haunted holiday of all.

I almost make another worthless point, but I let Templeton continue instead.

“Have you ever heard of The Dick Van Dyke Show?

“What?” Sometimes I find it hard to keep up with his wildly random thoughts. “Dick Van Dyke?”

“Did you get that program up in Canada? You must have.” He kicks the heel of his shoe against the grave marker, and some ash from his cigarette flutters to the ground. “I remember watching a rerun when I was about eight years old. My mom used to think it was funny.” Templeton leans back, and tilts his head up, blowing smoke at the unseen stars. “There was one episode that was taped right after everyone had found out Kennedy was assassinated. They had all heard the news during rehearsals, and the episode was filmed a few days later. The actors still delivered their lines, but to an empty audience. I guess because nobody felt like laughing. It didn’t matter though; the laugh track was added after all of the jokes anyway, whether they were funny or not. But you could see tears just behind their eyes. They all tried to hide it, but they couldn’t. There’s this unseen black cloud hanging above them all when you watch that episode. Even if you saw it today and didn’t know what the reasons were, you would still feel it.” Templeton spits a wad of phlegm into the dirt. A tree above him is dripping melted snow, and he shakes the cold drops out of his hair. “All of the camera angles were slightly askew too. My mom didn’t pick up on any of it, but I did.” I wonder what the point of this story is, and he stops for a moment to try and understand my reaction. “Don’t you see? They were all trying to ignore death. Whether they knew it or not, they were all just waiting for their own end to come, but at the same time they weren’t about to let anything allow them to acknowledge it.”

I shuffle my feet around in the snow, half in an attempt to warm them up and half due to this nervous feeling inside me. Templeton is talking strangely, stranger than usual. His peculiar fascination with death is beginning to scare me a little. The fog seems to be getting thicker. The fireworks continue to flash off his face, but they’re fainter now. “Is this why you brought me here?” I ask him. “To tell me about The Dick Van Dyke Show?”

“We’re just talking Bella. It was only a memory that came to mind. Besides, I didn’t bring you anywhere tonight. You followed me, remember?”

I don’t answer him. Instead, I search his eyes with mine. I see if I can go longer than him without blinking. I lose in less than ten seconds.

“Why are you fidgeting? What are you scared of Bella?”

“I already told you.”

There’s an uncomfortable silence between the two of us for a few moments. He continues to smoke, while I remain shivering in the cold. Templeton is picking at the statue beside him. He’s digging his fingernails into the cracks of the angel’s wing, collecting the built-up moss and dirt onto his fingertip.

I can’t help but ask him the very same question he refused to answer just minutes ago. “Are you the same way Templeton? Are you sitting around waiting for the end to come?”

“Me? No. I have better things to be doing with my time here.”

“Really. Unlike me, right?”

“Exactly. Unlike you. And unlike all of these people around us, who have already begun to walk the path of angels.”

“Angels?” The sparkling wings on my back catch my peripheral vision. “Well I’m already an angel, so I don’t need to wait, do I?”

“You’re only dressed as an angel babe. You’re not the real deal.”

“So you believe in angels?”

He keeps picking away at the rock with his fingers, answering me most matter-of-factly. “Of course I do.”

“Really? Are you serious?”

“Of course I am.” I think this is the first time that Templeton has ever convinced me that he believes in anything at all. “Maybe not in the way you might think, but I do.”

“Well, have you ever seen an angel before?”

“You mean a real one, right? Not just a costume?”

“Right.”

“Not yet. You?”

“No. But I don’t believe in angels.”

“Well then…” Templeton finally removes himself from his perch. He jumps down onto the ground below him with a thump so solid that the bones of William and Rose Endicott probably rattle beneath him. “That’s a pretty strange costume choice you’ve made.”

“At least I made a choice.”

“Do you know what an angel is?”

This is the same question I asked my father when I was a little girl. “Angels are just like you and me and your mother,” is what he told me.

“I have no idea,” I say.

“What’s their purpose?”

“They’re regular people that just want to help one another out,” is what my father said.

“I don’t know.”

“Some people will tell you they’re guardians. Some will say that angels are messengers. You might even hear that they’re supposed to be warning signs for the Apocalypse, if you could ever believe in shit like that.”

“I don’t,” I tell him.

“Neither do I Bella. But that’s what people will tell you. Because that’s what people will believe.”

“So what is it that you believe in Templeton? If you refuse to believe what you’ve been told?”

He takes one last drag of his cigarette before tossing it over the fence. “To molt is to change, correct? To change is to evolve. Let’s just say it all comes down to evolution.”

I look him over, and watch as the lights continue to bounce from his face to my wings, and back again. This was the same thing he had said to me in my class a month ago. To molt is to change, whether psychologically or physically. Temporarily or permanently. I still don’t quite understand what he means.

“Listen Bella, don’t think me any less intelligent than you because my beliefs differ from yours.”

“That’s ridiculous. You’re the most brilliant student I have. You know that.”

Templeton turns his eyes to look beyond the graveyard. There’s a small cluster of old heritage homes in the distance. There aren’t any lights on, but even from here I can see the shadowy outlines of three people wandering around out there. One of them appears to be walking awkwardly, as though hopping on one leg. Probably just some kids looking for somewhere quiet to drink and get high. Templeton notices them too, but he turns back to look at me. “Don’t condemn me for having different feelings than you do Bella.” I’m not certain if he’s still referring to the angels, or if he’s moved on to our relationship. “I can’t force you to wholly believe in the same things I believe, but at the very least, I can make you accept it.”

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

Templeton just stands there, his hands in his pockets. I have no reply for him. No answer for any question still hanging unasked. I don’t know if I want to move closer to him, or further away. All of the angels and winged sculptures surrounding us seem to be on the edge of their gravestones, just waiting for me to make my next move. This man has always made me unsure of myself. He’s never left my side without leaving me questioning something gone unmentioned. Was it right for me to feel this way? He stands there looking me over. I don’t want to, but I feel as though he’s trying to push me away.

He walks back over to the weeping angel. I imagine it’s still warm from him sitting there for the last fifteen minutes. He brushes some more dirt off with his sleeve. “Do you see this grave? This is the reason I come to Salem every Halloween. William and Rose are distant relatives of mine; seven generations removed. William was a fisherman here, and he fished for Atlantic cod. Rose gave birth to John Endicott, who was my great-great-great-great Grandfather.”

I feel foolish. I feel as though I’d forced myself to come along to Salem with Templeton tonight when it’s clear now that he was only coming here for personal reasons. I still don’t know what I want to tell him, but it’s okay because it was inevitable that he would once again beat me to the punch anyway.

“Would you mind leaving me alone for a moment? Maybe you should wait for me back at the car.”

“Can’t I just wait for you by the gate? You know this place gives me the creeps.”

“Wait for me at the car. I think I’d like to spend a few minutes alone here.” He stands beside the grave, just waiting for me to leave him.

“It’s freezing out here,” I plead with him. But I don’t receive any further response. He’s unmoving. Unwavering. The kids in the distance have disappeared from sight. “Will you take me home after this?”

“Of course I will. I’ll see you in a few minutes.”

I don’t have anything else to say. I turn around and wind my way back out of the cemetery. I lift myself over the gate, and tear my stocking again on the metal spike. Eerily, the fog seems to clear as soon as I return to the sidewalk.

I’m waiting for over an hour before Templeton shows up. He still had my car keys in his pocket, so I’ve been huddled up on the ground beside the passenger door trying to keep myself as warm as I can with what little I’m wearing. I make an attempt at wrapping my angel wings around myself, but they keep springing back open. As if they want to take me away from here, to lift me off the gravel parking lot and take me somewhere better.

I was relieved to find that there was no parking ticket folded under the windshield wipers, so Templeton was right when he told me not to worry about it. However, there is a scratch on the hood that wasn’t there before. Somebody carved ‘PUFFIN’ on my car with a knife by the looks of it. Whatever it was that the unknown vandal had meant by it, I find it hard to imagine it has something to do with the auk of the same name. I have no idea how much it’s going to cost me to get it fixed, but I’m not terribly concerned at the moment. I just want to get out of Salem.

I try to ignore Templeton when he does shows up; partly because I’m ashamed I gave him such a difficult time in the graveyard, but mostly because he left me trapped outside of my car, unable to warm my hands up against the dashboard heater. Conveniently, he ignores me too, and simply opens the trunk and then slams it shut again.

He comes back around to the front where I’m crouched in a ball and holding my wings in my icy fingers. He slides a toque over his head. “It’s fucking cold out here tonight, isn’t it?”

I roll my eyes in total agreement.

“You know, you’d have been warmer if you kept walking around, instead of just sitting there.”

“Probably. Or you could have given me my keys before sending me off. Where’d you get that toque anyway?”

“I had it in your trunk.”

“Since when did you start keeping things in my trunk?”

“I’ve got a shit-load of stuff back there.” It’s misdirection; he doesn’t answer the question, but rather he amuses me by creating a slew of new ones. And just like a magician, he makes a pack of cigarettes appear from up his sleeve. “I’ve got smokes in there too.” He takes one out and lights it up.

“Some nitwit carved the word PUFFIN on my hood while we were gone.”

He looks at the scratches, correctly identifying the genus, “Ah…Fratercula.” He mumbles something else to himself, but I can’t make out the words. He turns and looks off nowhere in particular, speaking as though whoever committed the act might still be listening. “That’s not a very nice thing to do, Fuckhead.”

My wings spring open again, and I stand up now, rubbing myself in another failing attempt to warm up. “Do you really have to use language like that all of the time?”

He laughs a little. “Is me calling someone a Fuckhead any different from you using such charmingly derogative names like nitwit? Or Cheese Monkey? Or Dilly Bar?

“There is a difference, yes. I was raised better than that.”

“Come on. Just give me a ‘Fuckhead.’ I left you out here in the freezing cold; it’s the least you could do. Really lay it on me.”

“I don’t think so.”

Shit-For-Brains?

“No.”

“How about Cunt Flap?

“Templeton, please.”

“Well how about this then: how about you promise me that you’ll make your last words the most appalling words you can think of?”

“My last words?”

“You know, right before you die. Just yell ‘em out loud for everyone to hear.”

“I’ll try to remember that when it happens,” I tell him. “Can we just get going now?”

“But of course, my lady.” Templeton graciously opens the passenger door for me, and I climb inside. I’m already pre-adjusting the heater settings in preperation for when he turns the engine on. But he insists on finishing his cigarette outside before fulfilling any of my needs. My anger might be enough to warm me up anyway.

As we find our way back out of Salem, a couple of firetrucks blast by us, sirens blaring. Of course Templeton doesn’t pull off to the side of the road to ensure them easy passage. I can’t help but notice that there’s a house on fire in the distance. It appears to be one of the old heritage homes that I’d spotted earlier this evening from the graveyard.

I point out the house to Templeton, who replies with a very disinterested, “Well, well. Now that’s a fucking shame, isn’t it?”

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

Molt – Chapter Ten

Of the Ambiguous and the Once-Amphibious

WEDNESDAY, OCTOBER EIGHTH. I wake up and it’s staring right at me with empty, dried-up sockets. Wanting to lick its zippered lips. It wants to leap on me from those hollow legs.

Templeton Rate’s aftertaste stings like poison and it’s left my body inert. It hurts underneath my fingernails. My jaw is sore; my hair in knots, my taste buds flared. And for some reason, one of my big toes is in an incredible amount of throbbing pain. It all adds up to being a most invigorating feeling, one that I can admit to now that I wish I hadn’t gone so long without.

Still, all isn’t quite right, is it? My clothes are not on the floor where I’d left them. Instead, they’re on the bed and above the covers, as though tossed there from the floor, rather than the other way around. As I gather them up, I do so routinely, but certainly this is embarrassingly far from routine for Isabelle Donhelle. Slowly and awkwardly, much like my performance last night, I put my clothes back on while still under the covers, just in case Templeton enters as I’m dressing. Even though he’s unfortunately seen it all, I’d still rather save myself as much embarrassment as I possibly can.

When I see my socks on the floor, I instantly realize that, although I put my socks on left foot first and then right everyday without thought, today I would be pausing to think about it. Because this isn’t my modest one-bedroom apartment on Newbury Street. Because I’m used to mornings where the first sound I hear is Claude rattling his beak along metal bars. Because I always wake to the smell of coffee lazily drifting in through my open window, and to the ultra-hygienic taste of mouthwash still on my tongue from my habitual 3:00 AM trip to the bathroom. ­­­­­Instead, I’ve got the sound of this crooked ceiling fan whirring hazardously above me, the smell of these horribly-faded pink bed sheets and this long-forgotten lingering taste of sex and cigarettes.

I don’t even have a clue as to where I am. Or where Templeton is for that matter. I only pray that I’m still in Boston.

On the floor just beyond my socks and shoes, lies a pair of women’s underwear: a tiny blood-red mound of string and mesh fabric. They’re certainly not mine, and yet I can’t help but stare at them. I wonder who the last girl was to wrap herself in these sheets just as I’m doing now. I also think about how desperately I need that 3:00 AM oral cleansing right now.

What am I doing here? What exactly brings a girl like me to a place like this, and into pink sheets that smell like spoiled milk? What takes me from helping a struggling student after hours in the library to this? How does this happen? What is it that attracts a girl like me to a misfit like Templeton Rate in the first place?

If he hadn’t offered to pay for the cab ride last night; if he hadn’t suggested a return to The Strangest Feeling for coffee and dessert; if he hadn’t made out with me at the university library; if only that report hadn’t been so horrible and appeared so suddenly on my desk at home two nights ago in the first place.

It all culminated in the first sex I’ve had in the last two years. I’m ashamed to admit it, but I feel as though I’m much more intimate with the sexual devices of the avian world than I am with my own inner-workings. In birds, there is not usually a true penis-vagina copulation; instead, most males impregnate the female by what is known as a cloacal kiss, where the male mounts the female and presses his cloaca, or anal opening, against that of the female’s cloacal opening, into which he deposits his sperm. This will take anywhere between one to fifteen seconds. Embarrassingly, the whole process I’ve just described borders closely on the level of romance I experienced with Templeton last night.

I snap out of it and look again into the dried-up eyes of this thing in front of me. This leathery brown horror staring at me from the foot of the bed is a dead frog, or at least as far as I can tell, half of one. It still has its head and front legs, but with the charming addition of glued-on googly eyes, a zippered mouth and a key chain coming out of its torso, as if it were meant to hang fashionably from a belt. This grotesque thing is Templeton’s change purse. Part of me is totally freaked out at the idea that someone could keep money inside a dead animal turned into a novelty key chain, while another part of me just finds it more than a little baffling that Templeton Rate would carry a change purse in the first place. I remember reading somewhere that sailors had sometimes killed Wandering Albatross’s (Diomedea exulans) and made purses out of their webbed feet. I was reminded of that last night at The Strangest Feeling when I saw Templeton take this monstrosity out of his coat pocket and then oh-so-gentlemanly offered to pay for dessert. I was immediately disgusted then, but even more so now that I know it had been there all morning watching me sleep.

Waking up in an unfamiliar bed, being watched by a frog full of loose change, while another woman’s panties lay on the floor is about as unsettling of a thing as I can imagine.

I notice there appears to be a cigarette hanging from the side of the frog’s zippered lips. I move across the bed for a closer inspection, and realize that it’s simply rolled-up paper, torn from a page of lined foolscap.

Cautiously, I unroll it to find a note. It’s obvious that it’s from Templeton due to the charcoal scribbling, all in upper case, and the poor spacing with no punctuation:

GONE FOR

BREAKFAST SHOW

YOURSELF OUT AVOID ZIRK

AT ALL COSTS

My first thought is that I wished I’d actually waited long enough to see Templeton take some notes in the library yesterday afternoon, if for no other reason than to see exactly what he’s using as a writing instrument. I mean, charcoal again? Seriously?

And what the hoop is a zirk anyway?

No sooner do I ask myself this, does the door open. There’s that sour milk smell again. A twenty-something man in what appears to be a spandex bodysuit enters the bedroom. The reason I’m wondering if I am in fact still dreaming is that this white bodysuit is covered with fifteen or twenty familiar red stylized Canadian maple leaves. If I am truly dreaming, I only hope that I could be at home in my own bed right now.

“Zirk?” I ask, almost to myself. I try to cover up a little more with the bed sheet, even though I’m already dressed.

“Don’t mind me, gorgeous. I’m just getting some more ammonia.” The stranger pulls open a dresser drawer and begins digging through some rolled-up tube socks.

“What? Ammonia?” I rub my eyes hard with the balls of my hands, foolishly hoping that he’ll be gone when my vision clears. Unfortunately he’s not. “Um…do you know where Templeton is?”

He turns to me with a peculiar look in his eye. He spots the red panties on the floor and then focuses back on me, as if trying to make a connection between the two. On his bodysuit, there’s a maple leaf situated right between his legs, in true Adam and Eve fig leaf style. I pull the covers a little bit tighter around myself. He asks me, “Templeton?”

“Templeton Rate. Is he still…around?”

“Templeton went out for breakfast.” He gestures towards the change purse at the end of the bed, as though he had put it there himself. “Didn’t you get the note?”

I wave the note timidly in my hand, and he goes back to work searching through the sock drawer. Above me, the precarious ceiling fan gives me hope that there might be a quick end coming to this awkward situation. I’m almost afraid to ask, but I go for it anyway. “Do you mind me asking? What’s with the get-up?”

He slides the dresser drawer closed and opens the next one down. “The get-up? If you hadn’t realized yet, it’s Halloween.”

“Not for another two-and-a-half weeks, it isn’t.”

“Sure, if that’s how you want to look at it.” He continues to speak with his back turned to me, more focused on his search than anything. “But some things don’t have to be celebrated for only one day out of the year, correct? Why do you put your Christmas tree up weeks in advance?” I don’t want to tell him that my landlord doesn’t allow Christmas trees in the apartment at any time of the year, but he’s not waiting for a response from me anyway. He feverishly continues to root through the contents of the open dresser drawer.

I’m trying not to stare, yet I can’t help but notice one of the maple leaves on his suit is wedged uncomfortably between the crack of his fanny. I’m not sure if he’s supposed to be a luge pilot or some kind of superhero, I just try my best to block out the entire image instead.

I’m not certain I received an actual answer the first time, so I ask him again: “Is your name Zirk?” For emphasis, I even point to the unrolled paper in my hand.

“You haven’t seen a bottle of ammonia around here, have you?” he answers obliviously. He closes the middle drawer and slides open the bottom one, continuing the harried search.

With a quick look around me, the first thing I take note of is a grocery bag filled with t-shirts on the floor beside the bed. They all must be from old music concerts, as I can make out faded tour dates from ten years ago and rock-and-roll mullets through the translucency of the plastic.

For some reason, there’s a pink lawn-flamingo stuck in the carpet. Plastic flamingos are commonly thought to be imitations of the Lesser Flamingo (Phoenicopterus minor), since that is the bird they most resemble. However, in ornithology circles it is believed that they are in actuality their own species. This theory is supported by phonetics, as a plastic flamingo is properly pronounced with a long ‘a’ sound (“flay-mingo”), unlike their real-life counterparts. Interestingly, the number of plastic lawn flamingos drastically outnumbers real flamingos in all of North America by a count of nearly fifty-to-one.

Hanging from the ceiling in the corner of the room is a plastic five-bird mobile. They appear to be Mallards (Anas platyrhynchos), but due to the juvenile nature of the designs, I can’t tell if these are male drakes or females. The real key of course, would be the drake’s unmistakable green head and yellow bill (females have light brown heads and dark brown bills), but since it appears the heads have all been shot off with a pellet gun, it’s impossible to tell. And truthfully, not very important at the moment.

I don’t see a bottle of ammonia anywhere.

The bottom drawer doesn’t appear to have what this costumed intruder is looking for either. I ask him, “Does Templeton know you’re rummaging through his bedroom looking for ammonia?”

“This isn’t Templeton’s room, gorgeous. It’s my room. And before you ask…yes. You’re in my bed.”

I’m instantly too disgusted to respond, so he’s allowed to continue freely without retort. “This is my dresser. And I’m looking for my bottle of ammonia, which I’ll be using to wash my money. Your ass in my bed notwithstanding, I seriously cannot stand other people’s dirt. Do you know how many people have handled a common twenty-dollar bill?” Even if I had an answer for him, he doesn’t give me time to open my mouth. “One point two million. That adds up to over ten million dirty digits all over poor Andrew Jackson’s face. Not to mention the twenty-two million all up in Abe Lincoln’s grill. And nearly thirty million fingers have been in George Washington’s curly locks. Those are some seriously filthy numbers. You don’t even know who those hands belong to.”

I can’t help but notice the poorly concealed bulge on his costume. This man really knows how to make a girl feel uncomfortable. “I guess I never thought about it that way before,” I say to him, for lack of anything better to say.

“Of course you didn’t.”

I look back down at the plastic bag full of shirts. I think one of them says Toad The Wet Sprocket on it.

He catches me looking. “You’re probably wondering why I’ve got that bag of shirts? You’re wondering why I keep them there, aren’t you? They’re so old and faded I’d never wear them again. I don’t even like looking at them. And I certainly don’t want anyone to ever know that I’ve been to a Crash Test Dummies concert before. You see that fan shaking above your head? If that fan should fly off in the middle of the night and slash my head open, I’m going to want something on hand to save my life. Some kind of bandage to stop the bleeding, you know? And what’s better than an old Spin Doctors t-shirt, right?”

I look to the plastic flamingo in the floor and the shot-up mallard mobile, and I’m finding that these birds are doing very little in the way of making me feel the slightest bit at ease here.

If Zirk had been telling this story, he’d make it incredibly hard to follow.

I notice a digital clock on the floor; it’s blinking 9:23 AM. If the time is correct, then my Evolution class started almost half an hour ago. “I don’t want to be rude,” I say, throwing the covers off myself and jumping out of the bed. “But I’ve really got to go.” I pick up my socks and shoes and head for the door.

He keeps talking, even as I leave the bedroom. And even as I’m out of the apartment and making a break for it down the stairs to the street, I can still hear him yelling something to me about having a happy Halloween.

I sit outside on the curb and put my socks back on, left foot first. Then my shoes. Yesterday’s snow is already gone. Already a forgotten moment in history. I give myself a moment to catch my breath and focus. Where am I? Did Templeton even live at this apartment? I may not know where in the city I am, but at least I don’t have to listen to anymore of Captain Canada’s crazy ramblings.

I don’t recognize anything around me at all.

There are rows of dingy apartment buildings, and across the street is a tiny park with a swing set. Only the chains are hanging where the seats used to be.

I see a poster for some movie called Dead Ducks, and I wonder just where that saying had ever originated from.

The telephone pole beside me has a faded picture of a girl stapled to it; she can’t be any older than twenty. There are piles of wilted flowers. A wooden cross lies flat on the sidewalk, fallen over from where it had once leaned. There’s a large chunk of the wooden telephone pole missing, at about knee-height. These are all tragic telltale signs of an accident that must have killed this girl. Perhaps she was sitting on the curb, right where I’m sitting now. Maybe she was lost, just as I am. I pick up the cross and lean it back up against the telephone pole.

As I do, I notice the dead carcass of a bird laying in the gutter. The front of its head has been caved-in. I can tell that it’s a Domestic Pigeon (Columba livia domestica) and that it’s probably been dead for over a week now. This girl, whoever she was, gets her own roadside memorial. But the bird? Nothing. A tear swells in my eye as I think that maybe Templeton left me here for dead too. Will anyone leave a memorial behind for the memory of Isabelle Donhelle when I’m gone? Or will I be left in the gutter without a second thought?

Due to the broken skull, my best guess is that this bird was likely killed by a glass collision, flying headfirst into a window. Astoundingly, hundreds of millions of birds are killed by glass collisions annually. Diurnal birds such as pigeons are attracted by the internal reflection of buildings with many windows. For all I know, this bird might have even flown right into Zirk’s apartment window, two floors above me.

I know I should take care of this dead pigeon somehow, but I don’t. The best I can do is shuffle down the curb to sit a little closer to it. I think back thirteen years to the bloody raven on my Power of Science textbook. I suppose some memories have a harder time than others when it comes to leaving for good…

I remember the light disappearing from the raven’s eyes as its pupils dilated and it died right in front of me. It was the first time I had ever seen anything die. I remember the blood as it slowly trickled off the edge of the paper. The smell made my nose sting. It soaked right through the page numbers. I remember seeing the one feather that had snagged on the broken window, still alive as it blew ever so gently in the wind…

I remember kissing Templeton in the library last night. I remember Mr. Giacomin shaking his head at me disapprovingly as we exited. I wasn’t embarrassed at the time, but I wish I was. I remember being outside in the parking lot and picking up where we left off. I remember how cold it was. I didn’t care that there were other students mingling around the university grounds. I didn’t care that Templeton had dirt on his face. I think that maybe it was our heat that melted what little snow had remained…

I remember Templeton suggesting that we get a bite to eat, as he was craving a piece of pie. “I know a really great place,” I remember him saying to me. He hailed a cab, and he paid for it himself, all in loose change. I remember the sound of the zipper as he opened the frog’s mouth and dug his dirty fingers inside for the money. I was completely horrified by the sight of it. I remember Templeton telling me his fantasy of a world in the future inhabited by giants who use humans as change purses. I laughed a little as he told me all about it. I remember seeing the cab driver’s license; his name was Wilbur, which we both found funny for some reason. Even funnier and more amusing than Templeton’s peculiar imaginings. I remember that Templeton didn’t help me out of the cab when it stopped…

We were back at The Strangest Feeling, and I remember thinking that this would be the once-promised second date I had wished for a week ago. Kitty remembered Templeton, but I’m not sure if she recognized me. She informed us that the kitchen was out of pie, so we opted for a deep-fried chocolate bar and some coffee instead. I remember looking at Templeton, and although we didn’t have much to say to one another, I came to the conclusion that I genuinely liked him. I thought Templeton Rate could actually make me happy. He made me smile, even though I’m not entirely sure why…

I remember Templeton suggesting we go back to his place. I asked him if he lived nearby, and I remember him telling me it was too far to walk so we’d better get another taxi. Templeton didn’t open the door for me on our way out of the diner. I don’t remember what directions he gave to the driver, but it felt like we were going in circles for a half hour. I remember our hands exploring one another for the first time in the back of the taxi. I remember everywhere that his hand had touched me. I remember not wanting it to end…

For some reason, I wonder which of these memories would still be in my head years from now. Which ones will make the cut?

I turn away from the pigeon just in time to hear familiar footsteps approach behind me. Templeton Rate sits down on the curb beside me; the dead pigeon between our feet.

“Say, that would make a great handbag, wouldn’t it?” He nudges the bird with the toe of his shoe.

And then I remember just how rude he can be.

“Where have you been Templeton? I’m late for my class, and I don’t even know where I am.”

Templeton turns to me, confused. “I went out for breakfast. Didn’t you get the note I left you?”

I’d stashed the dirty note into my pocket on my way out this morning. I take it out and wave it in his face. “You mean this, right? Thanks a lot. It was very kind of you to leave it behind.”

“You’re welcome.” He removes a cigarette from his coat pocket and strikes a matchstick on the sidewalk. He takes a quick drag, and then he holds the smoke out to offer me a puff.

“No thank you. Haven’t I told you yet that I don’t smoke?”

“Well, thankfully, I think we skipped that whole boring first-date interview process yesterday.” He flicks some ashes onto the dead pigeon.

“Don’t do that! That’s disrespectful.” I push his hand away in the other direction. I take another look at the note, just to make sure I didn’t miss any details that might help to clear things up for me. Nothing.

He glances over, and taps on the ‘avoid zirk at all costs’ part of the message. “So, did you heed my warnings?”

“That’s a difficult thing to do considering how you left me in his bed.”

“Well, I don’t have a bed of my own yet. It makes for an awkward living situation.”

“Tell me about it.”

“Seriously though,” Templeton continues. “Zirk is crazy. Mentally, he’s just totally out to lunch. Completely one-hundred-percent fucked-up. I honestly have no idea how he manages to hold down a full-time job. You should have just avoided him entirely.”

“Now you tell me.”

“He works with me at the hotel you know? He’s a doorman too.”

I have to ask, “What’s the deal with the costume?”

“Costume?”

I can’t tell if he’s joking with me, or simply has no idea what I’m talking about. Either way, I decide not to dwell on it; it’s probably best to just keep things moving along. “Never mind,” I say.

He takes another long drag of his cigarette and looks off into the distance, watching the morning clouds roll into place. I’ve never seen anyone so peaceful. I wish I could calm myself down a little, but I’m still upset about everything that’s transpired. “If you went out for breakfast, why did you leave your wallet behind? Just to keep an eye on me?”

“He doesn’t have eyes anymore,” he says calmly.

Finally, I turn my attention away from him. “I’m really mad at you right now Templeton. Do you know that? This isn’t how you’re supposed to treat people. I’m mad, and it doesn’t even seem like you notice.”

“Don’t worry about it. I notice everything.” Templeton takes one long, last drag of the cigarette, and then extinguishes it at his feet. He motions to the girl’s picture on the telephone pole beside us. “Did you know her?”

“Hmm? No. Why would I know her?”

“She was in your class, wasn’t she?”

I take a good long look at the picture, but it’s not ringing any bells. Curly brown hair. Toothy smile. Her whole life ahead of her. She looks just like any of the girls at the school, or anywhere else for that matter. Students are students. They’re all the same, aren’t they? If this dead girl actually did attend Hawthorne University, then she went completely unnoticed by me. “Are you sure?” I’m already starting to put this morning’s events behind me. “What was her name?”

Templeton looks at the picture at little more closely now too, as though he’s searching it for hidden answers. “I don’t know. I didn’t know her.”

Tied to one of the flowers is a note that reads ‘We’ll always love you Autumn.’ Again, I find myself wondering about my own memorial.

He tries changing the subject while I’m not paying attention. “I think it’s funny.”

“What’s that?” I ask.

“It’s funny how the ideas of life and death are so separate, but at the same time they’re so closely connected to one another, aren’t they?”

I don’t have an answer for him, since I don’t really know what his point is. He doesn’t embellish either. After another minute though, I get tired of waiting for an explanation. “I’m not sure what you mean,” I confess.

“What is it that you see when you look around you?”

I scan everything with my eyes: the dead pigeon, the dead girl and the dead flowers. I even envision the dead frog back upstairs.

Strangely, he knows exactly what it is that I’m seeing. Another xerox copy of my thoughts. “All you see is death, don’t you? But all I see are the traces of life that still surround it all.”

He’s right; aside from the sound of traffic in the distance and a plastic bag blowing by us on a breeze in true American Beauty style, I don’t see anything in the way of life here. There’s so much loss and sadness on this sidewalk. I want to tell him I know he’s right. I want to tell him that I can’t help but see the worst in everything, because of my own inability to see the best in myself. And I want to ask him to elaborate, to share his own feelings on the subject, or maybe even ask him to apologize for abandoning me twice now, but thankfully Templeton continues before I can say anything too stupid.

“Do you see that?” He directs my attention to an old rusted car parked about ten feet from where we sit, and he points out a long scrape on the trunk. “You see where the paint has been scratched right off? There’s a story about what happened there. Somebody somewhere knows that story, and they experienced it first-hand. That seemingly insignificant little scrape has its own complicated story for why it exists.” He reaches his hand out to feel something on the telephone pole beside us. “Somebody carved their initials into this telephone pole. Do you see? They stood right here in this very spot and scratched a W and a C into the wood with who knows what. Maybe a pocketknife? Maybe a rock? I don’t know why they did it, but there’s got to be a reason.” He picks up the wilted flowers, and inspects them delicately. Some ants crawl out onto his hand, but he doesn’t bother flicking them away. “These flowers were left here by someone. Someone that went to some shitty corner store and overpaid for them. And somebody somewhere grew these flowers and cut them and sold them for the sole purpose of taking advantage of that one person’s mourning.” He tosses the flowers back down at the base of the telephone pole as though they don’t mean anything at all now.

“I don’t know,” is what I tell him, which is certainly an understatement for how I feel. I don’t know why on Earth he’s considering the origins of a scrape on a car, carvings in a telephone pole or even where the flowers must have come from.

“Don’t you see?” he pushes. “All around us are casualties of life. Things that still exist, but at the same time are also non-existent. And yet the signs are still there; within all the dead shit there remain the signs of life. Imagine we were sitting in the middle of a graveyard; what would you see? All you would see is death, wouldn’t you? Most people would. But what’s really more important to you: life or death?”

I don’t know the answer to that. I don’t know what’s more important. I only know that I’m lonely. I know that all I desperately want is for someone to finally love me, and not expect to receive cheapened birthday greetings; not cheat on their wife; not leave me scared and alone in their creepy roommate’s smelly pink bed sheets.

“You know Isabella…”

“Isabelle,” I correct him.

“Right. You know, I was thinking that I like you. It’s not particularly easy for me to be so open and honest. I know I’m not perfect. I probably say shit you don’t like and do fucked-up things that piss you off, but I think that I do. I think that I really do like you.”

I can’t believe it, but those three words that I’ve been waiting forever to hear? This was actually the closest anyone’s come so far. It’s kind of pathetic in a way. I’m still mad at him, but instead of telling him everything, instead of being as honest as he’s being with me, I simply decide to say, “I think I like you too, Templeton.”

“What do you say I get you back to school then? I’m missing class too, you know.”

It occurs to me that my car is still sitting in the staff parking lot. We get up from the curb and walk to catch a bus to the University. In an unexpected move, he even pays for my bus ride with some more change from his pocket.

I instantly recognize the familiar orange plastic seats of bus #3031. This was my birthday present to myself last Thursday. This was the same bus I had gotten off of to avoid Templeton Rate a week ago. The same one in which he’d found me, all alone and miserable. Where he’d spotted some sign of life that I was previously unaware of.

I sit in the same seat, and notice the same screw twisted into the pole in front of me. I was searching for answers within its X-shaped void just a week ago, but there’s nothing hidden from me that’s worth looking for now. There’s nowhere I’m trying to run from, nothing I’m trying to ignore. Templeton even puts his arm around my shoulder.

As I turn to him and smile, I notice something on the other side of the window. Right around the corner from Templeton’s apartment building, nestled between the same triple-x porn shops, is The Strangest Feeling café. Strangely, we were only about half a block away.

NEXT CHAPTER

Molt – Chapter Nine

In the Lek

From the field journal of Professor I. Donhelle:

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

………

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 ………

From the field journal of Professor I. Donhelle:

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

 ………

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Is there a point to your story?”

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

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

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

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

 ………

From the field journal of Professor I. Donhelle:

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

 ………

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

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

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

“I’m afraid that’s too personal.”

“You fucked him, didn’t you?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

 ………

From the field journal of Professor I. Donhelle:

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

………

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

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

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

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

No it’s not Templeton Rate. You are.

If I hadn’t stayed there believing his lies.

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

 ………

From the field journal of Professor I. Donhelle:

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

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

………

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

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

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

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

 ………

From the field journal of Professor I. Donhelle:

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

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

 ………

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

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

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

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

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

Formally and informally, my class was officially over.

NEXT CHAPTER