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 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