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

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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 Four

Two Months of Kissing Claude

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

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

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

…………

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

If I hadn’t returned to The Strangest Feeling.

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

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

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

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

“Excuse me?” I mumble.

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

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

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

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

“French-Canadian actually.”

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

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

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

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

…………

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

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

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

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

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

“Do you have a boyfriend?”

I told her no.

“Have you ever kissed a boy before?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hey,” he said to me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So what do you say?” he asked.

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

…………

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

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

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

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

“Excuse me?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

…………

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So they went to him instead.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They did their best impression of a mature greeting.

“ ‘Allo,” said Dad.

“Hey,” said Claude.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s certainly how Madeleine would have perceived it.

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

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

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

A birthday itself

Is not so very special,

Not special at all

It can only be

As special as you are then,

As you are to me

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

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

“So what?” was all I could give him.

“So what do you say?”

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

“No. That’s not it.”

“Way to go?”

Still nothing.

“What do you want me to say, Claude?”

“You’re supposed to say happy birthday.”

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

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

“Well, happy birthday then.”

“Thank you.”

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

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

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

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

Selfish?”

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

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

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

…………

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

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

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

“My name’s Maria,” Sylvie replies.

“What? But your nametag…?”

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

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

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

NEXT CHAPTER

Molt – Chapter Two

Litter of Angels

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If I hadn’t been an only child.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ostrich,” she said to me.

“Pardon?”

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

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

“Ostrich isn’t so bad,” I told her.

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

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

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

“What’s his nickname?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

NEXT CHAPTER