The Bugbear is a short story I wrote in 2019. It’s a group of adults playing D&D. But it’s also about seeing things — and people — in a different light.
There She Was is a short story I wrote in 2018, between novel projects. It’s a little dark, a little sad, a little funny, and a little hopeful. Like all my favourite stories tend to be.
R. Tim Morris’ Rating: 7/10
There’s a few moments here that easily make The Animators a 5-Star book. Just brilliant, quiet, heart-breaking moments that Whitaker absolutely nails. But there are other moments where I felt my attention drifting, wishing I knew where this book was really going. It’s a slow start, and the placing of certain events feels unusual to me. But it all gets there eventually.
When things happen in this book, they happen quickly. A sudden turn this way, then giving us a while to explore it and feel it out, before another sudden turn takes us that way.
Having an animation background myself allowed for some extra bonus treats in my reading. I’ve been through the struggle of trying to stake my place in that world. I kind of wish we were privy to more of Sharon’s struggles at the top of the book; instead, we’re quickly celebrating Sharon’s and Mel’s success in the industry. But upon reaching the end of the novel, I think readers would have been better-rewarded with a slightly different approach at the beginning.
Sharon herself, at times, felt more like a passenger than a driver in her own book. She just kind of went along with the things that were happening around her rather than controlling the action herself. In the end, I don’t know if I ever really felt like I knew her as much as I wanted to.
Flaws aside, The Animators is an exceptional debut from an author who is not afraid to write a raw, imperfect, and often disappointing world.
In Lacuna Misplaced, I wanted to explore the ends of relationships, and whether there’s the possibility of a supernatural force that predetermines whether a relationship will end amicably or not.
But there’s plenty more to dissect within the story, and it’s only ~2300 words, so I’ve tried to leave enough outside the story to dwell upon after a reading.
Lacuna Misplaced was published in 2017 by a now-defunct indie publisher, and in 2020 it was included in an indie author anthology of short stores; a collection compiled and edited by yours truly.
For some reason lately, maybe it’s the planetary alignment or because people just want to talk to me, I’ve had a few queries about the dedication in my first novel, Molt. Inquiring minds have wondered of its origins, the who’s and the why’s.
In Memory of Cody. And if you’re now wondering too, here’s the answer.
When I was in the 12th Grade, there was a new student at my high school. After a brief conversation in the hall one day we quickly became very close friends. And it was at a time when new friends were difficult to come across and very much appreciated. He and his two brothers were social animals, which was definitely unfamiliar territory to me, but I was seen as a welcome addition at their house parties and other gatherings. Though most everyone there would be drinking and/or smoking as typical teenagers did in these settings, I didn’t. It simply was never in my character; I had no interest, and no one ever felt the need to pressure me on the matter.
During these gatherings, my friend’s father would generally always be present. Not acting as some sort of adult supervision. Quite simply, he just lived there. That was his home. His name was Cody and he was a quiet man, certainly not unapproachable or unfriendly, he just liked his space. He would sit on his favorite chair oftentimes playing solitaire on a tiny card table. Drinking whiskey and smoking. I liked to sit with him sometimes; the both of us not really talking as much as watching. I liked his company, and I enjoyed the idea that he liked mine as well. I don’t think I ever knew what he did for a living, but that never mattered much at all. He liked to talk about his four sons (the oldest of which I’d never met) and their many moves along the way to where they’d currently landed.
It was within one of these moments that we got to talking and I learned how he was – and had been for quite some time – writing a book. My mind was blown. I’d never known anyone with the ambition to write an actual book. At the time I think I assumed there were only like a hundred people who have ever written a book. Ever. Obviously I’d never really thought about it much before then, but I assumed only really incredibly special people would ever consider doing so. But this was just a hobby for him. He was attempting to write a book about his family history; family trees and lineage and stuff like that. To be honest, I never really learned much more about it, but I always made an effort to ask him how the book was coming every time I saw him.
Let’s jump ahead to many years later. Cody and his sons had all gone their separate ways, as families inevitably do. I didn’t even talk to my friend much at all anymore though I thought about him often and fondly recalled the few years we grew up together. Cody was certainly a part of those memories too. On a whim of creativity I began to write a screenplay. And then another. And another. I soon hit the proverbial writer’s block and needed a jump start. I entered a 3-Day Novel Writing contest where I wrote a 65-page novella. From there I wanted to challenge myself further so I began work on a full-length novel. And all along the way I continued to remember Cody and how I always thought writing a book was an impossible task only to be taken upon by very prolific individuals. But this quiet man was not going to stop at anything to write about his family history. And now I’d done it too. It took a few years, a few battles with confidence, a few rewrites and a few lapses of judgement but I was slowly finishing the edits on my first full-length novel.
As it happened, this old friend of mine was getting married and he contacted me and invited me down to California for the wedding. Of course I knew that his father would be there and I was so excited and surging with energy at the thought of telling Cody what I’d been up all these last few years and what I was on the verge of finishing. I knew as I was nearing the end of my novel that I wanted nothing more than to thank Cody for sparking something from somewhere within myself. I knew he’d be proud of me. And then I saw him. And I told him. And it was an awesome feeling. I’m ashamed to admit it but I’m pretty sure this was the highlight of the trip, more so than the actual wedding. His approval was extremely meaningful to me. I promised to get a copy of the book to him as soon as it was done.
I don’t think it was any more than three weeks later that my friend called me to tell me Cody had died in a motorcycle accident. DIED. It was horrible and devastating and I still get choked up thinking about the very last time I saw him, more than five years ago. The book was done very soon after. Molt was finished. And there was no question that I would be dedicating it to Cody.
I can’t believe sometimes how lucky I was to have seen him so soon before he died. I wish I could have sent that copy of Molt to him that I’d promised. But life’s roads take unexpected turns and its streets intersect more often than we think they will. Horrible things will happen and happy coincidences will occur. To me, Cody will always represent both and I’m very proud to have his name in my book.
Thanks again Cody.
The Weeping Angel
FRIDAY, OCTOBER THIRTY-FIRST. A thick screen of milky white fog covers the WELCOME TO SALEM sign, but I knew the instant we had arrived in Salem, as it was marked by a bat flying straight into the windshield. The only way it could have felt more like Halloween at this moment would be if the Headless Horseman were following along behind us. He just might be too, if the fake cobwebs that Templeton decorated the entirety of my car with weren’t preventing me from seeing the road behind us.
With Templeton behind the wheel, it had only been a thirty-five minute drive from Boston to Salem, but it seemed as long as the boat trip to Hades must feel like. Through the gate at Lake Avernus. Although I was hoping our destination wouldn’t be nearly as final.
The buildings in Salem have what is often referred to as ‘charm,’ but they only seem old and run-down to me. And yet, all of the boxy First Period and Gothic Revival architecture seems to take on an absolute feeling, as though something horrible had happened in each and every one of these houses at some point in history. Were there really ghosts behind every wall in Salem? Or does this place simply have the knack for playing tricks on one’s mind?
The city of Salem is an odd one. Many people still associate it with the Salem Witch Trials of 1692; and that’s the first thing I thought of too when Templeton suggested this trip. But even if that’s not all that the city has to offer, they do a good job at making it appear otherwise. Salem police cars have witch logos on their doors. We drive by a public school and I notice the name: Witchcraft Heights Elementary. There’s a ‘GO WITCHES!’ sign hanging beside the high school football field.
I take another Three Musketeers from the warm dashboard and gobble it down as I try to confirm with Templeton just what exactly it is we’re doing here tonight. “Tell me again why I agreed to come here?” My Sunda Varanus blend, an unanticipated earthy complexity of smooth-bodied flavor, had been empty five minutes into the drive.
“You know you didn’t have to come along,” he replies, with his usual absence of romance. Why is it that the incantation of the words Templeton speaks makes it sound as though he had not only planned to come to Salem alone, but that having me here with him bothers him to no end? I try and find reasons why I shouldn’t want to be here with him, but I’m finding it more and more difficult to feel as though I don’t need Templeton anymore. It’s funny to think about how quickly people can change.
We follow Lafayette Street all the way to Salem Common, where we find ourselves right in the middle of what Templeton had referred to as the Haunted Happenings festival. It’s a steaming cauldron full of parading candlelit walking tours, kids dressed as ghouls, pirates and Harry Potters, vendor tables full of charms, voodoo dolls, kettle corn, pies and candy apples, and the odd booth set up by local psychic readers. I shiver as the eerie music and wicked laughter streaming through the air scratches along my skin.
There’s a row of zombies beside us, stumbling along the sidewalk. Their makeup is grotesque, with open wounds and faces covered with blood. One appears to have taken a gunshot to the skull, and it reminds me a little of the male Hairy Woodpecker (Picoides villosus), which is easily spotted because of the red patch of feathers on the back of his head. Unlike zombies though, the woodpecker has probably the strongest brain in all the animal kingdom. They lack cerebrospinal fluid, so their brains are packed tightly, preventing it from bouncing against the skull and causing damage when it pecks wood at twenty blows per second. Although far less advanced, I imagine the brains of these zombies are probably about the same size as a woodpecker’s. They try to entertain us by swarming around my car, slowing us down. Templeton just lays on the horn and speeds up a little, almost running over their sticky, blood-covered legs. A few of the zombies break character, and curse at us as the car peels around the corner.
Templeton parks in a small, empty lot. I direct his attention to one of the signs clearly indicating that parking is not permitted here due to the festivities. He quickly dismisses the warning, and tells me, “Don’t worry about it. We’re not bothering anyone.”
I realize then that all of his “don’t worry about its” are starting to add up, and they’re really beginning to grate my nerves.
He turns the engine off, pockets my keys and gets out of the car. He seems to take in everything around us, as if for the first time. With all of my upper-body strength, I push the frozen passenger door open and step out into the cold night.
“Let’s get a look at you then,” Templeton says, turning in my direction. These are the first words he’s spoken in the last three days that show any interest in me at all. I flatten my costume down with my palms, still warm from holding them against the heater for the last half hour.
There’s a costume shop on Newbury Street that opens up for six weeks of the year around Halloween, and I stopped in for the first time on Wednesday after work to pick something out. Spotting an intricate pair of sparkling, feathered wings on one of the mannequins, I decided to start there. Angels intrigue me, as they seem like nothing more than the perfect marriage of humans and birds. The inclusion of the attached glittering sequins aside, these wings would certainly never be adequate for an angel’s flight. The elliptical wing shape is completely inaccurate, as the low aspect ratio of elliptical wings on birds allows for tight maneuvering in confined spaces, such as dense vegetation.
I put my mastery of the science aside, and I bought the angel wings. The rest of the costume didn’t matter much to me at the time, so I finished the look off with a green knee-length velour dress with sleeves so long that they cover my hands and black fishnet stockings. Of course, now that I’m standing in a Salem parking lot on this cold October night, I’m beginning to wonder why I’ve never seen pictures of angels wearing insulated pants and ski jackets.
“It’s a good look for you Bella,” he says. It might be unintentional, but Templeton sometimes says the sweetest things to me at oddest of times. And for once, he isn’t following it up with something rude.
If my costume had been telling this story, it would be awfully close to the truth.
I try to straighten my secondary covert feathers, brushing them downwards. “I think the wings got bent on the ride up here.”
Templeton studies them for a moment. “You do realize that the mechanics of those wings wouldn’t help you achieve flight, don’t you?” Maybe this is the insult I was expecting, but if it is, then it’s an extremely educated one with very little threat behind it. Wing shape aside, an angel could never become airborne, since they lack the powerful muscles attached to a deep-keeled breastbone. And angels don’t have the hollow bones and toothless jaws as birds do, an evolutionary development that cuts down on body mass.
“I know,” I say to him. “It’s pretty obvious, isn’t it?”
“Come on, let’s get moving.” Templeton takes my sleeve-covered hand, and we walk into the crazed streets of Salem. “It wouldn’t have killed you to show a little more leg, you know.”
“Unfortunately for your libido, I’m not that kind of angel. I’m the good kind.”
I should point out the fact that Templeton isn’t wearing a costume tonight. It seemed so important to him that I dress up for Halloween, but when he showed up at my apartment earlier wearing nothing but his usual attire, I had to ask him:
ME: “You said if I was going to come with you, I would need a costume. Correct?”
HIM: “That’s right.”
ME: “Well, what about you then? What are you supposed to be?”
HIM: “I’m nothing.”
ME: “If I’m going to be something, you can’t be nothing. It doesn’t work that way.”
HIM: “Fine. If it makes you happy, I’m a pedestrian.”
ME: “A Pedestrian? You can’t be a pedestrian for Halloween if I’m going to walk around dressed like this. That’s a total copout Templeton.”
HIM: “Maybe so, but was it ever agreed upon that I would be wearing a costume tonight?”
ME: “Well…no. But that’s not the point. As far as I’m concerned, you’re dressed as a hypocrite.”
HIM: “Fine then. I’m a hypocrite. Can we just get going already?”
Templeton holds onto my hand as he navigates us through the streets, winding his way seemingly unnoticed through the costumed crowd in true pedestrian fashion.
The colors, smells and sounds are overwhelming my senses. The people of Salem live for this moment; as though they’ve planned all year for this festival, and as soon as it’s over they’ll begin plans for the next one. Their costumes range from the frightening to the playful, and everything in between. I see witches with noses shaped like those of the Long-Billed Curlew (Numenius americanus). I see a can-can dancer with the train of an Indian Peafowl (Pavo cristatus) on her head. I see a child dressed as a bat, but with large leathery wings on his back like a bird, rather under his arms like a bat’s should be. All of them make my angel costume appear so meager by comparison. There are firecrackers exploding everywhere. Dogs are barking. Werewolves are howling. Crazed denizens of the night run right up into my face and shake their tongues, hoping for a scare. Smoke machines are generating so much thick smoke that I can’t even see where we parked the car anymore. Scents of sulfur, incense and kids smoking pot all mix together and irritate my nostrils. Children bump me. People push me. There’s broken glass on the road and it crackles between the snow and my footsteps.
I take in a long, deep breath as soon as we emerge from the dense crowds. Templeton leads me to a cemetery, just one of many in Salem. The old rusted gate is locked up, seemingly since the turn of the century. Last century, that is. Templeton hops over the gate, waving for me to follow.
“There’s no way I’m going in there,” I say.
“Come on.” He urges me from the other side. “Why not?”
“Because it’s not right. That’s a graveyard Templeton.”
I don’t want to tell him that being here right now only reminds me of one thing; and that’s Claude, and the fact that he’s still missing. Already twice now tonight, Templeton has asked me to stop brooding over my loss. “I just don’t want to be thinking about death at a time like this,” is what I tell him. “That’s all.”
“Are you kidding me? There’s no better time than this. Come on.”
I still haven’t spoken to Templeton yet about his strange behavior at my place on Monday night, nor did I make a deal out of the fact that he got up and left me without a saying a word. I’ve gotten used to the fact that this man operates a little differently than most people. And if I asked him, he certainly wouldn’t give me a straight answer anyway.
As Templeton helps me over the gate I tear my stocking on one of the protruding metal spikes. This cemetery must be one of the oldest ones in the city, and I can tell there must not be a groundskeeper here anymore since the weeds are growing everywhere. Many of the tombstones are all but covered in a splattering of overgrown dandelions, ivy and Virginia creeper. What really strikes me is the richness and elegance of these old gravestones: highly decorated and elaborately carved sandstone, marble and limestone markers, all ranging in size. This cemetery is not just filled with uninteresting run-of-the-mill tablet-style headstones; there’s a wide assortment of scattered, beautiful stone-carved markers.
Many of these are embellished with avian figures, popular amongst cemetery symbolism. Sitting birds on a headstone generally signify eternal life, while birds in flight commonly symbolize resurrection. Specific types of birds can represent different ideas altogether. The large tombstone I’m standing next to right now has a dove with an olive branch, a symbol for peace.
Templeton’s already forty feet ahead of me. “Where are you going, anyway?” I call out to him. He doesn’t acknowledge my question though. He keeps walking away from me, disappearing into the fog.
I run to catch up, dodging gravestones as best I can. I pass a tombstone with a Rooster (Gallus gallus) on it, which represents awakening or resurrection. I see a Bank Swallow (Riparia riparia) and I instantly recall its purpose as a sign for hope, fertility and the renewal of life. There is another headstone embellished with a Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) wrapped in stars and stripes, signifying liberty and eternal vigilance.
After a few minutes of cautious footsteps, I find Templeton waiting for me. He’s smoking a cigarette and sitting on another forgotten grave off in the back of the cemetery. This one is a large sandstone block, on top of which is a four-foot tall sculpture of an angel weeping. Her wings are spread high above her head, with one of them only half the size, having crumbled apart after years of neglect. Her tears of poison ivy wind all the way from her hands to her mossy feet. It’s beautiful though, and one of the most striking statues in the entire graveyard.
The plaque on the stone block reads:
WILLIAM S. ENDICOTT: MAY 29, 1799 – OCT. 31, 1841.
ROSE M. ENDICOTT: JUN. 1, 1810 – OCT. 31, 1841.
Above each name is an etching of a winged face, which represents an effigy of the deceased souls, also known as the Flight of the Soul. I wonder what intriguing event transpired that William and Rose would both die on the same date, and today’s date no less. I’m also wondering why I ever agreed to come to this horrible place.
Templeton blows out a puff of smoke. The nicotine wisp blends seamlessly into the fog. “Do you ever think about the dead?” he muses.
I hope that this is a simple question that will quickly head somewhere else, because all I can envision in my head is Claude being uncovered behind a dumpster somewhere. I recall sitting outside Templeton’s apartment three weeks ago and I summon up the image of the dead pigeon with the crushed skull on the sidewalk. And I remember the bloody raven lying on my open textbook. Of course I think about death. “Isn’t that normal?”
“Yeah but…” he takes another drag of his cigarette, “…what’s the fucking point?”
“You mean, why we can’t all live forever? I think that would get pretty lackluster after a while. Imagine eight million years of this.”
My humorous attempt bounces off of him, unnoticed. He stamps the ground with his foot as he continues his thought. “All of these bodies buried beneath us had to die in order to get to where they are now. So what’s the reason for living for so long if all you’re doing is simply waiting for the end to come?”
“Is that what we’re doing right now?” I ask him. But more specifically, I ask, “Are you just waiting for the end?”
I don’t get an immediate response, but that’s fine. I honestly hadn’t gotten my hopes up that I would actually receive one. Templeton continues to smoke his cigarette, as though the question was never asked. The sounds of a thousand firecrackers pop and crackle in the distance. Bursts of light seep though the mist and reflect off of Templeton’s face. A cold shiver shoots up my spine when I imagine the hundreds of dead people lying no more than six feet below me.
“You seem uneasy Bella.” As much as I dislike hearing him call me Isabella, I think I’m even more bothered by Bella. There’s something about the way he says it that seems to scare me a little bit more. Especially tonight, given the setting.
“It’s this graveyard. You know I’m not comfortable being here.”
Templeton holds his cigarette out towards me. “You should have a smoke. It helps.”
“No thanks. I’ve never been one for peer pressure.”
“Come on,” he presses. “Just one puff is perfectly harmless. It’ll help calm your nerves.”
I take the lit cigarette from his steady hand, and examine it for a second before plugging it into my mouth. I inhale. I let the smoke wrap around my tongue. I can feel it winding down my throat. I almost feel like I’m choking, and I uncontrollably cough it back up. The exhaled smoke from my mouth mixes seamlessly with the fog surrounding us. The cigarette falls from my hand into a patch of snow at my feet, extinguishing it immediately. I imagine this is no different from anyone’s first attempt at smoking, but the taste in my mouth has a comfortable familiarity to it.
“You feel better now, don’t you?” Templeton asks, still perched on the grave marker.
“Not really,” I cough the words out. Now I’m thinking about a whole mess of new problems; like cancer, heart disease, emphysema and possible birth defects for my hypothetical children.
“You’ll get used to it.” He takes another cigarette from his pocket and lights it up. I’m staring again; I don’t know why I’m so compelled to watch his face whenever it’s illuminated.
“How long have you smoked anyway?”
He leans against the weeping angel now, thinking back to the point of time in question. “I don’t remember.” And just when I think he’s planning on leaving the subject there, giving me one of his usual non-informative answers, he continues. “I used to have a girlfriend in Schenectady. She was the one who first convinced me to start smoking. She said that she liked the taste of cigarettes on guys’ tongues when she kissed them.”
“That’s pretty gross,” I say, finding a disturbing familiarity in what this unnamed girlfriend had practiced.
“She had long blonde hair and green eyes, just like you. But her fingernails were always painted brown. I remember thinking how unusual it was for a girl to have these muddy brown nails. Then one day she painted them orange, and that was the day that I dumped her.”
“You broke up with her because she painted her nails a different color?”
“I broke up with her because she made out with practically every other guy in school.”
“When I was in high school, I had a boyfriend who smoked. I admit that I started to get used to that taste in his mouth when we kissed.”
“Oh yeah? What was his name?”
“That’s not really important,” I say meekly, thinking that I would probably die of embarrassment should Templeton find out Claude’s name. For the first time, I start to wonder what Templeton’s childhood must have been like. How many girlfriends did he have? How many had he slept with? How long had he lived in Schenectady? Did he have any siblings? Surely his home life could not have been any stranger than mine was. What did I have? Three hundred brothers and sisters? I’ve never discussed the finer details of my past with Templeton. Like I said before, our relationship was mostly just sex and homework anyway.
“Did your parents approve of this guy?” he asks me.
I wonder why he’s showing this sudden interest, but I can’t afford to miss out on what might pass as a meaningful conversation. “They only met him once,” I say. All I can envision is my parents in the halls of Doneau High, surprising me at my locker on Valentine’s Day. “It was awkward, to say the least.”
He takes another long drag on his cigarette. “Those kinds of things usually are.”
I think about my parents a little more, and I try my best to see things from their perspective for once. “Honestly though, I never really understood my mother and father very well. I couldn’t figure out how they could ever be happy with the lives that they had chosen. But I think I was like any other kid: I only ever wanted to be something special. Someone completely unlike my parents.”
“And now?” He asks, as though sensing a change of attitude.
“Now?” I want to tell Templeton that I think it was inevitable that I would feel the way I do now; that sooner or later everyone decides their parents really did have it all figured out. Now I’m yearning for the simplicity, for the normalcy of everything they had. I opt to leave out the more complicated details though. “Now I think that I need to re-evaluate those ideas. Now I think that I’m simply ready for a change.”
“I think you are too.” Templeton blows four or five smoke rings from his mouth. Aside from cartoon characters, I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone do that before.
“What about your parents Templeton? What are they like?”
His answer is short and delivered quickly. “My mom is dead.” He doesn’t seem fazed at all by the thought of it. “And I have no idea who my father was.”
“I’m sorry,” is the best that I can do. In a way, I guess Templeton is kind of an orphan himself. Just one more from the litter of angels.
“Don’t worry about it,” he says, as though he’s been telling people the same thing for
years. “It’s not your fault.”
I’m at a loss for words. Maybe I shouldn’t have tried to be so inquisitive about his past. I should have left our relationship where it was. I’m sure Templeton’s probably dealt with it for a long time now, and has already gotten over any negative feelings about his childhood.
Still, I can’t stop myself from saying it again, “I’m sorry.”
“What do you think ever happened to Claude?” He asks me. Even though I didn’t tell Templeton the name of the boy from my past with the cigarette tongue, that’s the first image that comes to mind. It doesn’t help that the two of them are so remarkably similar. Just replace the sandstone block he’s sitting on with the yellow electrical box behind the gymnasium. Voila.
But I come to my senses before answering him, and I recall the tragic disappearance of my bird on Monday night. “I have no idea what happened to him. I don’t really want to think about it.”
Templeton removes the infamous googly-eyed frog from his pocket, and suggestively rattles the change around inside of it. I still find it hard to believe how cruel he can be sometimes. Sadly though, I’m starting to get used to it.
“How can you even imply something so awful?” I ask him.
“It’s just all this talk about death. Can we please discuss something else?” I rub my arms, trying my best to not feel the cold.
But Templeton won’t change the subject for me. “He was locked in a cage and down to his last wing. Don’t you think that bird was ready to die? It’s like I said earlier: what’s the reason for living for so long if all you’re doing is waiting for it all to come to an end?”
“Well, I’m not ready to die! Is it so wrong for someone to try and find something in life to enjoy?”
“People don’t deal with death well enough. They’re all bound to it, but they just try and ignore it.”
“People like me you mean?”
“It’s everyone, Bella.”
I think back to our conversation on the sidewalk a few weeks ago. When he told me that I would only see the negativity surrounding death, whereas he would look for the signs of life instead. Now he seems to be contradicting his earlier beliefs. Templeton stuffs the frog back into his coat pocket.
The noise from the streets of Salem is so loud I’m finding it hard to focus. I can still hear the firecrackers and the children laughing and the witches cackling and the werewolves howling, all in celebration of the most haunted holiday of all.
I almost make another worthless point, but I let Templeton continue instead.
“Have you ever heard of The Dick Van Dyke Show?”
“What?” Sometimes I find it hard to keep up with his wildly random thoughts. “Dick Van Dyke?”
“Did you get that program up in Canada? You must have.” He kicks the heel of his shoe against the grave marker, and some ash from his cigarette flutters to the ground. “I remember watching a rerun when I was about eight years old. My mom used to think it was funny.” Templeton leans back, and tilts his head up, blowing smoke at the unseen stars. “There was one episode that was taped right after everyone had found out Kennedy was assassinated. They had all heard the news during rehearsals, and the episode was filmed a few days later. The actors still delivered their lines, but to an empty audience. I guess because nobody felt like laughing. It didn’t matter though; the laugh track was added after all of the jokes anyway, whether they were funny or not. But you could see tears just behind their eyes. They all tried to hide it, but they couldn’t. There’s this unseen black cloud hanging above them all when you watch that episode. Even if you saw it today and didn’t know what the reasons were, you would still feel it.” Templeton spits a wad of phlegm into the dirt. A tree above him is dripping melted snow, and he shakes the cold drops out of his hair. “All of the camera angles were slightly askew too. My mom didn’t pick up on any of it, but I did.” I wonder what the point of this story is, and he stops for a moment to try and understand my reaction. “Don’t you see? They were all trying to ignore death. Whether they knew it or not, they were all just waiting for their own end to come, but at the same time they weren’t about to let anything allow them to acknowledge it.”
I shuffle my feet around in the snow, half in an attempt to warm them up and half due to this nervous feeling inside me. Templeton is talking strangely, stranger than usual. His peculiar fascination with death is beginning to scare me a little. The fog seems to be getting thicker. The fireworks continue to flash off his face, but they’re fainter now. “Is this why you brought me here?” I ask him. “To tell me about The Dick Van Dyke Show?”
“We’re just talking Bella. It was only a memory that came to mind. Besides, I didn’t bring you anywhere tonight. You followed me, remember?”
I don’t answer him. Instead, I search his eyes with mine. I see if I can go longer than him without blinking. I lose in less than ten seconds.
“Why are you fidgeting? What are you scared of Bella?”
“I already told you.”
There’s an uncomfortable silence between the two of us for a few moments. He continues to smoke, while I remain shivering in the cold. Templeton is picking at the statue beside him. He’s digging his fingernails into the cracks of the angel’s wing, collecting the built-up moss and dirt onto his fingertip.
I can’t help but ask him the very same question he refused to answer just minutes ago. “Are you the same way Templeton? Are you sitting around waiting for the end to come?”
“Me? No. I have better things to be doing with my time here.”
“Really. Unlike me, right?”
“Exactly. Unlike you. And unlike all of these people around us, who have already begun to walk the path of angels.”
“Angels?” The sparkling wings on my back catch my peripheral vision. “Well I’m already an angel, so I don’t need to wait, do I?”
“You’re only dressed as an angel babe. You’re not the real deal.”
“So you believe in angels?”
He keeps picking away at the rock with his fingers, answering me most matter-of-factly. “Of course I do.”
“Really? Are you serious?”
“Of course I am.” I think this is the first time that Templeton has ever convinced me that he believes in anything at all. “Maybe not in the way you might think, but I do.”
“Well, have you ever seen an angel before?”
“You mean a real one, right? Not just a costume?”
“Not yet. You?”
“No. But I don’t believe in angels.”
“Well then…” Templeton finally removes himself from his perch. He jumps down onto the ground below him with a thump so solid that the bones of William and Rose Endicott probably rattle beneath him. “That’s a pretty strange costume choice you’ve made.”
“At least I made a choice.”
“Do you know what an angel is?”
This is the same question I asked my father when I was a little girl. “Angels are just like you and me and your mother,” is what he told me.
“I have no idea,” I say.
“What’s their purpose?”
“They’re regular people that just want to help one another out,” is what my father said.
“I don’t know.”
“Some people will tell you they’re guardians. Some will say that angels are messengers. You might even hear that they’re supposed to be warning signs for the Apocalypse, if you could ever believe in shit like that.”
“I don’t,” I tell him.
“Neither do I Bella. But that’s what people will tell you. Because that’s what people will believe.”
“So what is it that you believe in Templeton? If you refuse to believe what you’ve been told?”
He takes one last drag of his cigarette before tossing it over the fence. “To molt is to change, correct? To change is to evolve. Let’s just say it all comes down to evolution.”
I look him over, and watch as the lights continue to bounce from his face to my wings, and back again. This was the same thing he had said to me in my class a month ago. To molt is to change, whether psychologically or physically. Temporarily or permanently. I still don’t quite understand what he means.
“Listen Bella, don’t think me any less intelligent than you because my beliefs differ from yours.”
“That’s ridiculous. You’re the most brilliant student I have. You know that.”
Templeton turns his eyes to look beyond the graveyard. There’s a small cluster of old heritage homes in the distance. There aren’t any lights on, but even from here I can see the shadowy outlines of three people wandering around out there. One of them appears to be walking awkwardly, as though hopping on one leg. Probably just some kids looking for somewhere quiet to drink and get high. Templeton notices them too, but he turns back to look at me. “Don’t condemn me for having different feelings than you do Bella.” I’m not certain if he’s still referring to the angels, or if he’s moved on to our relationship. “I can’t force you to wholly believe in the same things I believe, but at the very least, I can make you accept it.”
Was Templeton even there at all, or was he just one more from the litter of angels?
Templeton just stands there, his hands in his pockets. I have no reply for him. No answer for any question still hanging unasked. I don’t know if I want to move closer to him, or further away. All of the angels and winged sculptures surrounding us seem to be on the edge of their gravestones, just waiting for me to make my next move. This man has always made me unsure of myself. He’s never left my side without leaving me questioning something gone unmentioned. Was it right for me to feel this way? He stands there looking me over. I don’t want to, but I feel as though he’s trying to push me away.
He walks back over to the weeping angel. I imagine it’s still warm from him sitting there for the last fifteen minutes. He brushes some more dirt off with his sleeve. “Do you see this grave? This is the reason I come to Salem every Halloween. William and Rose are distant relatives of mine; seven generations removed. William was a fisherman here, and he fished for Atlantic cod. Rose gave birth to John Endicott, who was my great-great-great-great Grandfather.”
I feel foolish. I feel as though I’d forced myself to come along to Salem with Templeton tonight when it’s clear now that he was only coming here for personal reasons. I still don’t know what I want to tell him, but it’s okay because it was inevitable that he would once again beat me to the punch anyway.
“Would you mind leaving me alone for a moment? Maybe you should wait for me back at the car.”
“Can’t I just wait for you by the gate? You know this place gives me the creeps.”
“Wait for me at the car. I think I’d like to spend a few minutes alone here.” He stands beside the grave, just waiting for me to leave him.
“It’s freezing out here,” I plead with him. But I don’t receive any further response. He’s unmoving. Unwavering. The kids in the distance have disappeared from sight. “Will you take me home after this?”
“Of course I will. I’ll see you in a few minutes.”
I don’t have anything else to say. I turn around and wind my way back out of the cemetery. I lift myself over the gate, and tear my stocking again on the metal spike. Eerily, the fog seems to clear as soon as I return to the sidewalk.
I’m waiting for over an hour before Templeton shows up. He still had my car keys in his pocket, so I’ve been huddled up on the ground beside the passenger door trying to keep myself as warm as I can with what little I’m wearing. I make an attempt at wrapping my angel wings around myself, but they keep springing back open. As if they want to take me away from here, to lift me off the gravel parking lot and take me somewhere better.
I was relieved to find that there was no parking ticket folded under the windshield wipers, so Templeton was right when he told me not to worry about it. However, there is a scratch on the hood that wasn’t there before. Somebody carved ‘PUFFIN’ on my car with a knife by the looks of it. Whatever it was that the unknown vandal had meant by it, I find it hard to imagine it has something to do with the auk of the same name. I have no idea how much it’s going to cost me to get it fixed, but I’m not terribly concerned at the moment. I just want to get out of Salem.
I try to ignore Templeton when he does shows up; partly because I’m ashamed I gave him such a difficult time in the graveyard, but mostly because he left me trapped outside of my car, unable to warm my hands up against the dashboard heater. Conveniently, he ignores me too, and simply opens the trunk and then slams it shut again.
He comes back around to the front where I’m crouched in a ball and holding my wings in my icy fingers. He slides a toque over his head. “It’s fucking cold out here tonight, isn’t it?”
I roll my eyes in total agreement.
“You know, you’d have been warmer if you kept walking around, instead of just sitting there.”
“Probably. Or you could have given me my keys before sending me off. Where’d you get that toque anyway?”
“I had it in your trunk.”
“Since when did you start keeping things in my trunk?”
“I’ve got a shit-load of stuff back there.” It’s misdirection; he doesn’t answer the question, but rather he amuses me by creating a slew of new ones. And just like a magician, he makes a pack of cigarettes appear from up his sleeve. “I’ve got smokes in there too.” He takes one out and lights it up.
“Some nitwit carved the word PUFFIN on my hood while we were gone.”
He looks at the scratches, correctly identifying the genus, “Ah…Fratercula.” He mumbles something else to himself, but I can’t make out the words. He turns and looks off nowhere in particular, speaking as though whoever committed the act might still be listening. “That’s not a very nice thing to do, Fuckhead.”
My wings spring open again, and I stand up now, rubbing myself in another failing attempt to warm up. “Do you really have to use language like that all of the time?”
He laughs a little. “Is me calling someone a Fuckhead any different from you using such charmingly derogative names like nitwit? Or Cheese Monkey? Or Dilly Bar?”
“There is a difference, yes. I was raised better than that.”
“Come on. Just give me a ‘Fuckhead.’ I left you out here in the freezing cold; it’s the least you could do. Really lay it on me.”
“I don’t think so.”
“How about Cunt Flap?”
“Well how about this then: how about you promise me that you’ll make your last words the most appalling words you can think of?”
“My last words?”
“You know, right before you die. Just yell ‘em out loud for everyone to hear.”
“I’ll try to remember that when it happens,” I tell him. “Can we just get going now?”
“But of course, my lady.” Templeton graciously opens the passenger door for me, and I climb inside. I’m already pre-adjusting the heater settings in preperation for when he turns the engine on. But he insists on finishing his cigarette outside before fulfilling any of my needs. My anger might be enough to warm me up anyway.
As we find our way back out of Salem, a couple of firetrucks blast by us, sirens blaring. Of course Templeton doesn’t pull off to the side of the road to ensure them easy passage. I can’t help but notice that there’s a house on fire in the distance. It appears to be one of the old heritage homes that I’d spotted earlier this evening from the graveyard.
I point out the house to Templeton, who replies with a very disinterested, “Well, well. Now that’s a fucking shame, isn’t it?”
MONDAY, OCTOBER TWENTY-SEVENTH. I leave some food in Claude’s dish before I go. I grab my bag and exit out onto Newbury Street. It’s a sunny morning, but the freezing cold of October has definitely set in. There hasn’t been any sign of snow in Boston since that first day two weeks ago. There’s no trace at all of the snow that had blanketed the city that one day, but the events that unfolded on that same afternoon are still extraordinarily frozen solid in my memory.
My daily migration has begun. As I leave my apartment, I can’t help but notice the wedding dresses in the window of the shop to my right. It’s no surprise though; I notice them every morning. These dresses used to make me feel lost, as though they were representing something much too far out of my reach. I thought that the portraits behind the glass were all frauds; the false brides and grooms were laughing at me from some made-up fantasy world. Of course, I’d always felt that they still had more than I did. Until Templeton came along that is.
I dodge a couple of yuppie moms pushing over-sized baby carriages and I find the same feelings of pre-Templeton loneliness racing through my head all over again. But just the thought of him helps me to smile again.
The popular orange Boston Duck Tours bus motors slowly along Newbury Street; its cartoon duck painted on the side splashing in a puddle, and its passengers inside pressed against the windows with cameras ready. The duck reminds me of the fact that drakes are among the few birds with a penis. The male organ of the Argentine Lake Duck (Oxyura vittata), a bird that only weighs about a pound, is a corkscrew-like appendage that becomes a foot long when fully erect. The female has a long corkscrew vagina, spiraling in the opposite direction. This bird is a riotously promiscuous species, and the drake’s extraordinary organ has evolved in such a way to displace the sperm of the female’s earlier mates. This cartoon duck reminds me that Templeton and I have made love a dozen times in the last two-and-a-half weeks. The feeling is exhilarating, when I think about how lucky I am to have him.
I smile for the flashing cameras, whether I’m the intended subject for their photos or not.
If these tourists had been telling this story, they would assume I’ve always been this happy.
To my left is the Starbucks, and I go inside to grab my morning coffee. Most of the staff knows me by name now, but none of them look the least bit familiar to me. Much like students, baristas are simply baristas. On the counter, I spot a birthday card standing upright, and I can read what’s been written inside:
To Sarah, Happy birthday! Hope you like the bracelet, please wear it.
I note the lack of haiku in the greeting. Once I reach the front counter, the barista greets me with a good morning. Her nametag says ‘Sarah,’ and I notice the absence of a bracelet around her wrist. I can’t help it, but I instantly do not wish to deal with this person. I let the man behind me go ahead while I wait for the next register over to open up. I’ve been in a good mood for over two weeks now, and I don’t need it spoiled by someone so ungrateful.
With a grandé Guatemala Magdalena in hand (an elegant and intriguing blend of gentle spice flavors), I head around to the back of the building where my car is parked. I can see Claude in the third-story window, watching me from his cage. “Bye-bye Bella,” he calls out through the partially open window.
I almost respond, but stop myself before I do. He’s looking directly at me, but there’s something that seems off in both his motions and emotions. I don’t know, it’s almost as if his head is leaning a little too far to one side. I know Claude well enough to pick up on the subtleties. I wonder if he ever longs to fly, like all of the other birds he can see out that window. Sometimes I catch him staring at the Rock Pigeons (Columba livia) perched on the telephone wires across from him. Sometimes the pigeons are chased off and replaced by American Crows (Corvus brachyrhynchos). All of those birds with two wings that can simply come and go as they please. I don’t believe the thought has ever crossed my mind before now, but it seems like it would be an obvious assumption; does Claude have the ability to yearn?
I open the car door and toss my bag in before responding, “Bye-bye Claude.” I get in and I drive out of Public Alley 434, trying my best to not worry about him any longer.
I haven’t been back to Templeton’s apartment since that first awkward morning, but he’s spent the night at my place a few times since then. He had seemed very interested in Claude, but I felt as though it was forced; as though he understood how important Claude was to me, and he felt he had to act accordingly. I’ve only really known Templeton for a short time now, but I already know that’s not in his character.
He wouldn’t display false emotion.
He wears his heart on his sleeve.
Templeton Rate doesn’t pretend to be someone he’s not.
At the intersection of Exeter and Newbury Street, I sit in the shadow of the John Hancock Tower to my left. The Tower makes me uncomfortable, and it always has. I think that it’s all of the reflections off its sheer glass façade that make me dizzy. To my right, I can see the fifty-two floors of the Prudential Tower, and I think back to my conversation with Templeton when I told him my dreams of flying. I get lost for a moment as I see a pair of Ring-Billed Gulls (Larus delawarensis) take off from the rooftop and hover for a moment in the air before they flap their wings and disappear from sight behind another building. I just know they were sitting there, waiting for me.
Because that’s the moment that I’m most jealous of.
I’m still dreaming as the car behind me honks its horn.
I make a right turn onto the busy Huntington Avenue, and fight with the rest of the Monday morning commuters. From there, it’s a right onto Parker Street and then a couple of short turns more before I’m once again parked in my own reserved spot within the Hawthorne University staff parking lot.
In terms of migratory routes, it’s a pretty short distance; fifteen minutes to work in the morning, and usually ten minutes to get home in the evening, traffic permitting. Although, where birds will make their migratory trips only a couple of times a year over large distances of thousands of miles (the longest of which is the Sooty Shearwater (Puffinus griseus), which makes an annual round-trip of roughly forty-thousand miles), my migration happens daily, nearly every day of the year. Still, sometimes I wonder who’s got it tougher: me or the sooty shearwater.
I pull into the parking lot, upset that my coffee is already lukewarm. But when everyday follows the same routine, it’s always going to be lukewarm. Thankfully though, my life has felt much less nauseatingly monotonous since Templeton Rate along.
I guess you could say Templeton and I have been dating for the last two weeks. As odd as our pairing might seem, I still can’t put my finger on what it is that makes me feel the way I do about him. Maybe it’s something akin to a pheromone-type of effect. I don’t consider myself to know much about the details of pheromone attraction. Although rampant in the animal kingdom, pheromones are mostly non-existent in birds, since in general, birds have a very poor olfactory sense. Corkscrew penises aside, their mating is done primarily through song and dance.
The only conclusions I’ve drawn so far, is that I’ve found some absurd emotional connection to Templeton’s smoldering dark brown eyes, that fantastic mop of hair and the cigarette breath; they’re the very same traits that Claude had. But Templeton is not the same person Claude was. He’s not about the happy birthdays or the scheduled make-outs. He makes me feel special. He makes me a better person. He encourages me to embrace change rather than resist it.
If he hadn’t made me feel special.
Templeton is not Professor Nickwelter; he’s not trying to keep our relationship hidden and he doesn’t buy me wristwatches and other such frivolities in order to keep me interested. He’s not about the charitable birthday dinners or secret rendezvous. I feel at ease around him. I no longer have to look for comfort in the images of birds. He sees things around him, and he sees things in me, that even some birds with their incredible visual acuity would have trouble spotting. There’s a reason he found me on the bus that night and it’s the very same reason I need him in my life.
If he hadn’t found me on the bus that night.
Templeton’s academic advancements are also amazing. He’s a natural genius, and the vast amount that he’s learned in such little time makes me proud to have him as a student in my classes. His current papers are a vast improvement over the original report that had appeared mysteriously on my desk just weeks ago. Whether he’s written about wing and skeletal structure, flight function, muscle growth or the respiratory system, they’ve all been meticulously detailed, and they’ve all received Professor Donhelle’s familiar blue checkmarks. His work had been nothing short of flawless and immaculate. His understandings seem far beyond any other student that has ever sat in my class. I have yet to question him about those first random scribblings he’d given me, though I’ve convinced myself that those reports were merely terrible on purpose. Surely the intimate knowledge that he’s recently shown suggests that Templeton Rate has a well-educated background. There’s no possibility that a comprehensive familiarity such as his could be faked.
He’s certainly not the man I had originally assumed him to be. His decision to switch from sticks of charcoal to ballpoint pens is almost evidence enough.
I lock my car and head for the ornithology department faculty entrance. I envision Templeton at the door smoking a cigarette as he waits for me. But instead, all I get is Jerry Humphries. His ugly brown car is parked in front of the entrance, its trunk open wide and one of the rear wheels up over the curb, buried in the grass. It looks like there’s another shipment arriving that I was unaware of. I think for a moment about talking to whoever’s in charge of scheduling, but then it occurs to me that it’s actually Humphries himself. While he should have notified me in the first place, I’ll gladly avoid making an issue out of it if that means not having to speak to the dirty little man face to face. But unfortunately, there’ll be no avoiding him this morning.
“Good morning Bella. How was your weekend?” He’s wearing his famous weathered brown leather trench coat, and fumbling with a large cardboard box, sloppily sealed with an over-abundance of orange electrical tape. His fingers are gnarled; the nails chomped down to the cuticles. His face is all patches of hair, some thick and some thin. Nose hairs spring forth in every direction. And his head is a really odd shape; like a rejected potato at the supermarket that you’ll always find lingering on its own in the bottom of the bin after all the others have been taken. The one that will eventually get thrown out because it’s been sitting by itself for far too long.
If Jerry Humphries had been telling this story, I’m certain it wouldn’t find a very wide audience.
I hear his wretched morning greeting, and I wish I could slug him in the stomach. Could I do it? Would it really be so bad to just hit someone I dislike so intensely? It certainly wouldn’t be something I’d ever thought of doing two weeks ago. I hear Templeton’s voice in my head insisting that I embrace change.
I can change, can’t I?
“My weekend was fine Jerry.” Maybe I’ll hit him tomorrow. “And you?”
“Great! Went up to Portsmouth. Did some hunting. I’ve got enough meat for a month now! You know, you should really come with me one of these weekends.”
“I really don’t think so. Hunting’s not exactly my thing.” I hope that will be enough to end the conversation, but I know it won’t be.
“How about church then? Why don’t you come along with me next Sunday?”
For reasons unknown, Humphries has asked me to come to church with him a number of times. It surprises me that someone so vile can actually be putting his faith in something. A glimmer of light from the rearview mirror’s dangling bent cross catches my eye. It doesn’t surprise him at all when I decline his offer yet again. “I didn’t know hunting in Portsmouth was legal?” I ask him. I hope it’s enough to soon find an end to our conversation, since I feel sick to my stomach just continuing this exchange.
“Well, it’s like anything; you’ve just gotta know where to look for it.” He is such a creep.
But then, like divine intervention, Templeton comes out through the doors. He seems to walk outside with a purpose, and is a little surprised when he sees me. I’m not sure why exactly, as I show up at the same time every morning. Punctual like the Common Cuckoo (Cuculus canorus), striking every hour on the cuckoo clock.
“Greetings, Professor Donhelle,” he says.
Humphries thinks he’s doing kindly favor by introducing us; “Bella, you know Templeton Rate, don’t you? He’s a student here.” But I know there’s nothing kind about the rat. “Templeton was just helping me unload some of these boxes.”
“Oh, we’re quite familiar, Templeton says. “Isn’t that right, Isabella?”
I don’t correct him anymore when he calls me Isabella. I’m not sure what he’s expecting me to say in response, but I show him a sign of approbation. “Well, that’s very nice of you Templeton. I’m sure Mr. Humphries appreciates the helping hand.” As though I was his mother and he was five years old and helping unload the groceries.
“I just like to do my part.” He turns back to Humphries, who’s eyeballing us as though sensing that something else might be going on between Templeton and I. But Jerry Humphries has never picked up on subtleties very easily. “Is this the last one then?” Templeton asks him.
“That’s right.” Humphries hands him the box. I hear something rattling around inside. It sounds like nails and broken glass.
“What have you got here anyway?” I ask Humphries. “I hope there aren’t any birds taped up in these boxes.” I might sound as though I’m joking casually, but I really just want to make sure.
Humphries closes the trunk of his car, and his Jesus fish falls off, clattering off the curb and onto the pavement. “Just some lab equipment. You know, stuff of that ilk.”
Templeton has already gone back inside the school with the last box. I decide it would be best to follow him immediately, and not leave any parting words for Humphries. So when Humphries turns away and bends down to pick up his metal fish, I use that precise moment to exit, without another word.
I didn’t expect Templeton to hold the door open for me; I would never mistake him for being such a gentleman. But at the very least, I thought he would have waited long enough for me to catch up. I have to run after him through the faculty halls, careful not to spill my coffee on the way. “Whatever made you help Humphries with these boxes anyway?”
“I was just walking by and he asked for my help. That’s all.” He doesn’t stop walking, and I’m at his heels following along behind him. “I get the feeling you don’t like that guy very much,” he calls back to me.
“That’s an understatement.”
“You didn’t fuck him too, did you?”
I stop in my tracks. “Jerry Humphries? Templeton, please! That man is disgusting.”
Templeton stops now too, and he turns back to face me. “Well, you already slept with Nickwelter. How am I supposed to know?”
“I had a life before you came along Templeton.”
“Well, what do you think?”
“I think you had an affair with one of your professors and your only other relationship has been with a one-armed bird. You can’t be satisfied with just coming to this school every damn day and teaching these morons the same inane bullshit semester after semester after semester, can you? Don’t you want anything more than that? Don’t you want to leave something important behind you when you’re dead and gone?”
He looks at me, holding the box in his arms and waiting for some kind of response. I keep any answers from him though, and stand in awe of the things he’s just said. What’s come over him? And why is he talking about my demise so soon into our relationship?
Templeton’s arms slouch down, realizing he’s over-stepped his boundaries. “I’m sorry,” he says to me for the first time ever. The contents of the box seem to apologize too, rolling in unison to one end. “I don’t know what makes me fly off the handle like that sometimes.”
“It’s okay,” I tell him. As hard as it is to hear it said, I think it’s harder to actually admit to myself that his words are mostly true. “Maybe you just need some coffee. I find it helps to calm my nerves.”
He sets the box down on the linoleum floor of the hall, right outside the south laboratory. “I think I just have a hard time believing you slept with that guy, is all.”
“I shouldn’t have told you the details about my past relationship in the first place,” I say to him. “It’s just that…well, we all have things we’ve done in the past that we later regret, don’t we? It’s hard to simply wipe the slate clean.”
“It’s called change Bella. It’s what we all do. And it’s inevitable, so you’d better get used to it.” Templeton has a way of really making me think about every last word he says. Then he usually follows it up by changing the subject. “But don’t dwell on it right now, okay? Let me walk you to your office.”
I agree, and I think about his one-armed bird comment from a minute ago. “I hope you know birds have wings, and not arms, right?”
Templeton smirks. Had he set himself up to be proven wrong on purpose? He looks down at the box on the floor, and suggests leaving it there for Humphries to deal with. Taking the coffee from my hand, he gulps some down and squirms a little. I thought that by now he’d be used to how much sugar I like. “You know, the only reason I was even helping that guy with his boxes in the first place was because I was waiting for you to show up this morning.”
“You were just waiting right there at the door?”
So far, my relationship with Templeton has not been much more than sex and homework, so it’s satisfying to engage in what feels like an ordinary boyfriend-girlfriend squabble. He was right when he said it though; the only real relationships I’ve had so far in my life have been my affair with Professor Nickwelter and the feeding of my invalid parrot. I’m just glad I never mentioned the sad tale of kissing Claude in high school to Templeton. Admittedly, that’s not much to show for in the last twenty-nine years, but would my life really have been so different if Mrs. Wyatt had not made that heartless decision?
If I hadn’t been rejected from the Doneau High basketball team.
I was still lost in Templeton’s eyes when Professor Nickwelter came around the corner. As usual, he wins the contest for the worst possible timing. He stops in his tracks, no doubt in stupefied wonder as to what Isabelle Donhelle was doing longing after this student of hers while she had just put the moves on Nickwelter in the back of his car only a couple of weeks ago. He fidgets, adjusting his collar nervously, unsure of his next move.
Templeton turns to see where my eyes are fixed. He and Nickwelter stare each other down for a moment. I visualize a California Condor (Gymnogyps californianus) and a Golden Eagle (Aquila chrysaetos) challenging one another over who gets dibs on a mountain goat carcass. Of course, I imagine Templeton as the golden eagle, but I’m now rethinking my role as the mountain goat carcass in this scenario.
Before any such bloodbath can occur however, I break the silence by accidentally dropping my coffee on the floor. At least I think it was an accident. “Oh! Good morning Professor Nickwelter.”
I can tell he doesn’t know what he could possibly say to me right now that would make things any less awkward. “Good morning Isabelle.” My only hope is that he’s at least thinking of his wife. “Do you think I could speak with you at some point today? I have some important matters to discuss.”
“Of course Professor,” I say, making sure I’m not getting any coffee on my shoes. “I’ll come see you when I have a moment.”
Nickwelter takes one last glance towards Templeton, eyeing him up for just the briefest of moments, before turning back to me. “Very good. Thank you.” Then he turns and walks away. It’s a sad exit, one that leaves a hurtful, burning sensation in my heart.
Nickwelter disappears from sight, and I look down at the mess of coffee on the floor. The plastic lid had popped off upon impact, and the creamy brown liquid slowly spreads out before me. I see my reflection, as well as the reflection of the ceiling lights above me. Templeton’s dark silhouette is in there too. Like staring up at clouds in an effort find imaginative shapes, the coffee seems to take on an entirely new form; it begins to resemble a dense flock of birds. Flying across the cold hall floor, migrating towards Templeton Rate.
It reminds me of a birding expedition I was on a few years ago. We were in the marshes of some backwater Massachusetts town, studying the habits of the American Bittern (Botaurus lentiginosus). The sun was just rising, creating a beautiful orange and pink pastel sky. From across the marsh came the sudden and explosive sound of a gunshot, probably from duck hunters who were up even earlier than we had been. The sound of the shot seemed louder than the booming cry of the bitterns, which flew off immediately. What I remember the most was the sight of the siege of bitterns; the idyllic sky had been overcome by this murky outline of the birds. They had lost all individual shape, and became one single black sheet against the sunrise. It was, and still is, surprising to me how these birds could possibly find the room to flap their own wings in and amongst one another.
Templeton’s own recent report on the very same bitterns I had once studied was impeccably thorough and insightful, from detailing its distinctive bellowing call to the bird’s extraordinarily instinctive ability to camouflage itself amongst marsh reeds.
I look up from the floor to Templeton, who seems to have been watching me closely the whole time. “I can’t believe you fucked that guy,” he reiterates with wonder. As intelligent as he is, sometimes he’s still in need of help when it comes to social interaction.
“I’d better let the janitor know about this mess,” I say.
“Don’t worry about it,” he tells me. “I’ll get Humphries to clean this up.” Templeton has a knack for always finding the best possible solution. I don’t want to know how that request might be initiated, so I don’t ask.
Templeton convinces me that I need to get my things together in order to prepare for class this morning. I ask if I’ll see him again before the day is through, but he says that he doesn’t have class today. He’s got a shift at the hotel, as well as some personal errands to attend to. He tells me he’ll be by later, and maybe we can meet up for lunch.
“That’s fine,” I say as I turn around to leave.
“Hold on Bella. Can I ask you something?”
I can’t help it, but memories of The Question instantly take over any thoughts I already had inside my head. “Of course. What is it?”
“What are you doing for Halloween?”
“I…I’m not sure. I don’t usually do anything for Halloween other than throw candy out my window to kids in the alley. Except for the mini Three Musketeers. I keep all of those for myself.”
He stares at me with a blank look in his eyes.
“What?” I ask.
“I’m sorry,” he says again for the second time now. “That’s pretty pathetic.”
“Well, I’m not going to sit at the front door all night and get depressed when no kids come by.” Which is exactly what I did my first three Halloweens in Boston. “Why do you ask? Do you have something better on your mind?”
“I usually go up to Salem for the Haunted Happenings festival. I was wondering if I could borrow your car.”
That certainly wasn’t where I thought this conversation was headed. “Did I hear you right? You want to borrow my car?”
“That’s right.” He looks at me with another blank expression, this time wondering why this wasn’t what I had expected to hear. “Did I say something wrong?”
I reiterate, and speak slowly, hoping that he’ll be able to understand what I’m trying to get at. “You want to borrow my car so you can go to Salem for Halloween?”
“It’s what I do every year.”
“And you didn’t think of asking me to come with you?” Could I possibly ever date someone that isn’t either twice my age or half my IQ?
“I’m sorry,” he says again. “I suppose I’m still getting used to this whole situation.”
“Situation? You mean our relationship?”
“Let me start over. Would you like to come with me to Salem for Halloween?”
“Thanks for the invite. But Salem? For Halloween? Isn’t that a little too…much?”
“Are you coming or not? You can bring your parrot and your Three Musketeers with you if you want, but I’m not going to ask a second time.”
“Do I need a costume?”
“Have you ever celebrated Halloween before?”
“To be honest, it’s never been one of my favorite holidays. I don’t think I get it.”
“It’s kids dressing up as things they’re scared of and it’s complete strangers giving them candy. What’s not to get?”
The strangers with candy is the part that my parents tried to keep far away from me when I was growing up. It didn’t make any sense to me then, but I can see their point now.
“I know what really scares you about Halloween,” he says. “It’s the costumes, isn’t it?”
“Costumes don’t scare me.”
“No, I know. But it’s the change they represent.”
He was right, wasn’t he? It always comes down to my fear of change.
If I hadn’t run through the hedge at Saint Francis Elementary.
“Can’t I just be myself?” I ask.
“If you’re coming with me, you’ll need a costume.”
“All right,” I decide. “I’ll come. But the whole idea really creeps me out, you know? Salem seems like the scariest place you could go on Halloween.”
“That’s the point, isn’t it?” He turns around to leave me without so much as a kiss or even one of his infamously unromantic high-fives. “I’ll see you later then.”
I look back down at the coffee on the floor which now seems to be taking on a much more sinister shape. I convince myself that it’s just my mind playing tricks on me. The puddle creeps to the edge of the box, and quickly begins turning the cardboard a dark, wet color. I decide I’d better move the box myself before anything of value is ruined. The south lab is sure to have some paper towels, and I decide to clean up the entire mess myself rather than trust someone else to do it. I unlock the door and flick the lights on.
The overhead lights come on, one by one. They illuminate the front of the laboratory all the way to the back. The center of the room has been cleared out, and there are boxes and crates piled up along the walls and on top of the tables. There are some unidentifiable bits and pieces of equipment strewn about, but I don’t see much else of interest. Until I spot the wooden planks at the back of the room, that is. Some strange framework of boards is being constructed.
It’s probably been six months since I’ve stepped foot in the south laboratory, but this is certainly not how I remember it being maintained. It seems larger than I recall, but it’s most likely just the empty space playing a trick on me. I’m beginning to question the extent of the fire in here that closed the school down for one weekend a month ago.
The back of the room smells like a lumberyard. This wooden frame must be as tall as it wide; I’d say fifteen to twenty feet, almost a perfect cube. Tools and wooden boards are scattered around the floor. There’s a table saw surrounded by mounds of sawdust that nobody seemed concerned about sweeping up. My mother would have a heart attack.
I don’t find any paper towels anywhere, so I pick up the box from the hallway, and add it to the mountainous pile forming on the lab’s tables. Something is going on in here that I wasn’t told about. I’ll question Humphries about it later.
On my way out of the room though, I spot a single feather blowing around in the corner of the lab. It reflects the lights from above, giving it a kind of glow. There’s an air vent on the wall that has caught the feather in a gentle, spinning pattern. It seems so lonely, as though it’s lost its way. With the south lab’s close proximity to the school’s bird sanctuary, it’s not uncommon for feathers to find their way around these parts, but this one has caught my unyielding attention. At first, it doesn’t appear overly special, but I still feel compelled to investigate. I take the feather into my hand; it’s soft like an ordinary down feather, but when I rub it between my fingers, the tip disintegrates into a dusty powder, indicating it must be a pulviplume. Between its size and the chestnut coloration, I believe it must have come from a Goliath Heron (Ardea goliath). Herons don’t have the common preen glands from which most birds obtain oil to condition and waterproof their feathers. Pulviplumes such as this have evolved in certain birds like the heron to create this cleansing powder, and they will comb it through their feathers with their toes. But goliath herons are only found in Africa and parts of Asia, and we don’t have any in the bird sanctuary that I’m aware of. I let the feather float back to the floor and as I do, I hear its croaking call: muffled, as if coming from somewhere in my mind. I dismiss it, assuming I’m mistaken, since I have to get going to my first class this morning.
It’s a few hours later now and I still haven’t seen any further sign of Templeton today. I’m sitting in my office alone, eating my terribly simple tuna sandwich. Every day, and with every bite, I feel more and more like the endangered Hawaiian Shearwater (Puffinus newwlli), living on a steady diet of tuna. The ironic part is that the shearwater will travel in flocks when they hunt for their lunch, while I eat dreadfully alone in my office. Somehow at this moment I feel more endangered than the Hawaiian shearwater, if that’s at all possible.
When I arrived at my office this morning there was another ‘MOM’ note from Steffen James taped to my door, no doubt torn once again from Jerry Humphries’ notepad. I’d never called my mother back three weeks ago. Now the note is staring at me from my desktop, reminding me that I’m not quite the thoughtful daughter she wished she’d raised. Why on Earth would she call me at the school again when I was home alone last night?
There’s something within Steffen’s handwriting that reminds me of the self-inflicted mess I’d made of myself in the university library two weeks ago. Some of the staff has no doubt heard all about it; there’s an awkward quality to Steffen’s M’s that seems to want to avoid bringing up the subject with me. I would think that he’d know me better by now, and that there’s no stinking chance I would want to be discussing my sexual exploits with anyone I see on a regular basis.
I consider heading down to Professor Nickwelter’s office as I’d promised earlier, but then thoughts begin to race through my head. I start to wonder what it was that was on Nickwelter’s mind earlier this morning. I wonder what we might discuss should I sit down across from him. I imagine he’s probably heard about the library fiasco as well. I imagine him belittling me. I can hear him mocking me. I can see his eyes tearing up and I wonder how this man can say these things to me when it’s so obvious he actually cares so much for me still. Is this how I deserve to be treated? Even if it’s only in my imagination?
I used to worry about the kinds of things that people thought of me, especially when I was questioning my own actions. Did Cindey Fellowes ever wish that it was her kissing Claude instead of me? Did Antonia ever think that I’d abandoned her when I left Ville Constance? I thought that once I was older I would stop caring about whether others judged me or not, but isn’t this when it really matters? When I’m a professional adult with a respectable career?
Am I second-guessing my relationship with Templeton Rate? Am I making a mistake or just being foolish? Maybe I shouldn’t let him try to change me. Then again, maybe I’m not wrong about anything; maybe I’m reading too much into everything. Maybe there was nothing ominous about the way Claude was holding his head this morning. Maybe Nickwelter just wanted to ask me if I could switch a class with him. Maybe Templeton just really enjoys Halloween. Perhaps nobody really thinks too much about me or whether I’m happy or not. Maybe nobody cares the slightest bit about what happens to Isabelle Donhelle.
Is that worse, I wonder?
I crumple the second half of my sandwich inside the note, and toss the whole thing into the trash.
I don’t want to talk to Professor Nickwelter today, so I don’t. I don’t want to give my mother a call back yet, so I won’t. I didn’t plan on going home early today, but I do anyway. I try to occupy my mind with thoughts of what I’ll wear when I accompany Templeton to Salem on Halloween night.
Sadly, I can’t help but worry about what he’ll think of my decision.
I’m not in the habit of checking my answering machine the moment I get in, since it’s never blinking anyway. The first thing I do when I come home from work is say hello to Claude. Ever since my apartment was broken into, I can’t help but say hi to him as I open the door, before he can see me; I don’t want him to ever think there might be another stranger in our home. He always answers me back. Today he doesn’t.
From my coat closet, I step into the kitchen. I scoop out a third of a cup of mix to bring to Claude. That is what I do every day, and this is exactly what I do today.
But when I walk into my living room, I am shocked to find that there is no bird to feed! My heart stops beating. Claude’s cage is empty! The metal latch on the cage door is broken, and lays on the floor in two pieces. The window is open, just as I had left it this morning. Just as I always leave it.
I have to catch my breath. I don’t want to fear the worst, as there’s no way Claude could fly out the window on one wing, and so I search the apartment. I keep cool. I stay rational. It’s possible that Claude could have snapped the metal latch with his powerful beak. It’s possible that the cold weather made the latch that much more brittle. Anything is possible, but the fact remains that he’s not here anywhere.
With my head out the window, I search the back alley. Nothing. My car is the only vehicle behind the building. In my mind, Claude breaks the latch in two with his beak, and he hops onto the window ledge. Maybe birds do dream. Maybe he has yearned to fly with the other birds. Maybe Claude has even greater aspirations than I do. I wouldn’t be surprised. I envision him recollecting the last jump he ever took, the one that would eventually lead to the amputation of his left wing. All he wants is that life of his back again. He never asked for this change in the first place; he never wanted it. And he jumps off the window ledge. Is he trying to remember how his old life used to be? Or is he trying to put an end to it all? What would it matter though, since the only resolution would be his poor body crushing against the pavement behind the Starbucks in Public Alley 434. Exactly where my car is parked now.
Was he still lying there when I pulled in five minutes ago, completely oblivious?
I dart out of my apartment. I run down the three flights of stairs and out the back door into the alley. I gather the courage to look under my car.
I look in the gutter. I look in and around the dumpsters.
Still nothing. Claude is nowhere to be found.
I look back up at my open window and I wonder how this could have happened. It just doesn’t make any sense. I thought that out of everything in my life Claude would be the one that loved me the most. He wasn’t just biding his time, waiting to leave me, was he?
I look up to the telephone wires and see the same rock pigeons that were there when I left this morning. Maybe they know exactly what happened. The only witnesses to this crime.
When I start to think that Claude might be gone forever, tears well up inside of me. I don’t want to cry outside where passing vagrants can witness my embarrassing breakdown as they dig through dumpsters. I don’t want them, of all people, feeling sorry for me. I can smell the bags of coffee grinds piled high in the trash, and the aroma helps me to regain my senses.
When I get back inside my apartment, I still don’t cry; I take one last look for Claude instead.
And still no tears.
Should I call Templeton? Is that the next logical step? This is what he’s supposed to be in my life for, isn’t it? I never did get too much in the way of comfort from Professor Nickwelter, and lord knows that the infamous Claude of Doneau High was certainly not an expert in the fine art of compassion, but maybe Templeton can be what I need.
He had given me the number for his cell phone, but so far I’ve resisted the use of it. I didn’t want to seem too needy too early in this new relationship. I pick up my phone and dial, except it doesn’t ring.
I hang up and try again, but I soon realize that there’s no dial tone. I check the cable to find it’s been unplugged. I can’t recall the last time that I had used my phone, or the last time I’d heard it ring. The answering machine is unplugged too. I think of the note from Steffen James, and how my mother has been waiting three weeks for me to return her phone call.
If only I’d called my mother back.
With the phone plugged back into the wall I give Templeton’s number another try, but all I get is his voice mail:
“You’ve reached Templeton Rate. This had better be good.”
I leave a frazzled message, urging him to call me back. I tell him that Claude is missing, and I suggest that maybe he could come by my place as soon as he’s free. I hope I don’t sound too desperate.
I wonder how my phone ever became unplugged in the first place. But I brush it off, since I’m more concerned with the fact that Claude is still gone, and that I’m still not crying about it.
His cage is so empty. The metal door still hangs open, swaying a little back and forth. There’s a slight breeze coming in through the window, but the air is freezing cold. It’s colder in here without Claude. After one last look out into the alley, I close the window, and I lay down on my bed.
The phone doesn’t ring all evening. And there are still no tears.
It’s dark when I wake up. I’m in a haze, but I’m certain I hear a rapping on my window. I sit up to listen closely, but the sound has stopped. Immediately, I remember everything that had happened since I’d come home from work. The memories are soon interrupted when I hear it again. Is it Claude outside? Or is somebody trying to break in again? Well go ahead already, there’s nothing left here that could be taken from me that I would miss.
Cautiously, I move off the bed and peek around the corner into my living room. A cold sweat comes over me as I see a shadowy figure outside on my fire escape. I duck back around the corner and I’m frozen in fear. If this person outside my window saw me, I have no idea.
As scared as I am, I still can’t muster any tears.
There’s another knock on the window, followed by a muffled voice. “Isabella? I know you’re in there. I can see you hiding around the corner, dummy.”
It’s Templeton’s voice for sure; no one else would constantly mispronounce my name like he does. But why is he going out of his way to scare the beef out of me? I take a cautious look around the corner; he’s crouched over, peering into my nest.
“Come on, open the window. It’s fucking freezing out here.”
With legs shaking, I slowly wobble towards him. I’m right beside the silent birdcage.
“What are you doing here?” I ask, sliding the window open.
“Uh, you called me remember? Something about a missing bird, I believe.” he climbs inside my living room and thoughtlessly rattles the empty cage beside him. “Is it this one?”
“His name is Claude.” I slap his hand off of the cage. “And I’m really worried, so be nice to me, okay?”
Ignoring the request, Templeton looks into the cage. It’s demeaning to think that he’s searching inside because he assumes I may have missed something. “Claude’s kind of a silly name for bird, don’t you think? Macaws aren’t even French.”
“I said be nice Templeton. He’s missing. Claude is gone, and I don’t know if he jumped out that window and killed himself, or if he’s still alive somewhere and suffering. I feel horrible. I’m sick to my stomach with worry, and you don’t even care.”
He dusts some snow off his coat, and shakes his wet hair like a dog. Then he puts a hand on my shoulder in an attempt at compassion. “Hey, I’m here aren’t I?”
“And then you scare me by coming through my window in the middle of the night? How did you even get up on the fire escape anyway?”
“There’s a pipe. I just shimmied up the pipe, and grabbed on. You don’t exactly have the best security system back there, you know?”
Still without any tears, I collapse into Templeton, and he wraps his arms around me. I don’t ask him where he was this afternoon. I don’t ask him why he didn’t call me back. I don’t know why he didn’t buzz my door instead of scaling the side of the building like some crazy cat burglar, and I don’t care. All I ask is for him to come to bed with me, and he obliges.
We kiss all the way into the bedroom, and once there, Templeton breaks apart from me and he lies down on the bed. I’m standing in the middle of the room. He asks me to undress, and I do. I’m still wearing my work clothes. Reaching up under my skirt, I remove my pantyhose, tossing them silently to the floor in a heap of black nylon. I unbutton my shirt and unzip my skirt; they fall together at my feet as well. I’m standing before him in my bra and underwear. Templeton remains motionless. He lies on my bed watching me, waiting for me to finish. Slowly, I remove the rest of my clothes. They seem to float down to the floor like a feather on the wind. Like the blowing down feather I’d spotted in the laboratory this morning. The look on his face remains unchanged, like he’s feeling nothing. I’m naked before him and he doesn’t feel a thing.
We get under the covers, and I kiss him as passionately as I can, but he’s not giving me anything in return. He seems preoccupied. I sit on top of him. His hands feel my back, as though looking for something, maybe imagining something that isn’t there. Pretending I’m someone that I’m not. Only then does he really kiss me.
He doesn’t waste any time inside of me. Again, romance is substituted for more of a cloacal kiss-type of experience. Still, I’ve never felt as wonderfully vulnerable as I do right now.
His hands never leave my back.
After he finishes, Templeton removes his hands from my shoulder blades, and holds my face in his palms. Then he says it. Those three words: “I love you.”
If only I hadn’t believed him.
For a moment, I completely forget that Claude is missing. That’s the moment that I finally cry. Templeton holds me, and he doesn’t let go until I fall asleep.
I have no idea what time it is when I wake up. It’s still dark. I don’t look for the clock because the first thing that crosses my mind is that Claude is still gone. Scanning the flattened sheets beside me, I can tell that Templeton is now missing as well. But he isn’t far. He hasn’t left me alone this time.
He’s still here, standing across the room. He’s naked, and looking out my window. The glow from the streetlight outside illuminates him. He’s staring up into the night. What he’s looking at, I have no idea. But it seems more like he’s looking for something, rather than at something.
I don’t think he heard me moving, but he turns back to me now. I don’t move an inch; pretending I’m still asleep as he watches me. Staring at me, but not knowing I’m watching him too. The light catches his face, and I notice the dull wet shine of tears in his eyes. What is he thinking? What’s going through his mind? I can’t make sense of it. It’s like I’m still asleep and dreaming. I don’t know if he’s sad or scared or something else I wouldn’t even be able to understand. I don’t dare ask him though. I simply wait. I wait to see what he might do next.
And then he turns and leaves. He takes his clothes, and he leaves my apartment without another word. Without even so much as another scribbled note stuffed in a frog’s mouth.
I don’t sleep the rest of the night, so I don’t know if I ever would’ve woken from a dream or if I was still stuck in some horrible nightmare.