Molt – Chapter Eighteen

The Glorious Age of Templeton Rate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s absolute chaos.

It’s utterly overwhelming.

It has to be Templeton Rate.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Fuck you,” he replies.

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

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

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

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

“No I don’t. Where’s Templeton?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maybe it’s my fault?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s Isabelle. Let me in.”

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

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

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

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

Like a hiding place.

Like a death trap.

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

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

“Mitchie let us in.”

Mitchie? Who’s Mitchie?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Bella?”

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

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

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

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

“What is it?” I ask him, terrified.

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

“A tool? A tool for what?”

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

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

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

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

Me?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Come with me.”

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

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

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

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

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

“See?” Templeton asks.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Even though they were twice as bad.

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

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

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

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

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

Claude flaps his re-grown wing with enthusiasm.

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

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

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

But I did.

If only Claude had stayed missing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or is it getting worse and worse?

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

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

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

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

“No.”

“But how did—”

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

“No.”

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

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

The glorious age of Templeton Rate.

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

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

“I thought you said Professor Nickwelter killed her?”

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

I hate it when he talks like this.

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

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

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

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

“What book?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One for sorrow, two for mirth,

Three for a funeral, four for a birth,

Five for silver, six for gold,

Seven for a secret not to be told,

Eight for heaven, nine for hell,

And ten for the devil’s own sel’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Professor Nickwelter?

NEXT CHAPTER

Molt – Chapter Twenty-One

Broken Heaven

WITH ALL MY strength, I push the heavy door to the rooftop of the Prudential Tower open and step outside. It’s cold up here, and the air seems thinner than it did when I was down on the streets below. I feel a bit disoriented. Dizzy. Light-headed. I assume this is only because I’d just run across the city and up fifty-two floors with a sore tailbone and a broken arm on half a bottle of red wine.

Once I finally catch my breath, I take a look over the rooftop’s edge. If it was quiet back on street level, then here above the city it’s like deep space. The stars seem brighter now without the luminous effluence of the city lights below. The thin mist that had been hanging in the air does not exist up here. Everything is as quiet as death. ‘The calm before the storm’ is the phrase that first comes to mind, but it feels as though the storm might have already happened.

With my eyes, I follow along Exeter Street and Newbury until I spot the rooftop of my own apartment building. I can barely see it through the cloudy vapors below. It appears so small and sad from up here. I wonder if this is what the gulls had seen every morning, and if they had imagined my loneliness before jumping from this exact spot. Before hanging in the air, as if suspended by magic. Before rubbing it in my face, that moment I’d been most jealous of.

I turn my head and look along the cold, icy rooftop to the southeast corner. And that’s when I see the giant fiberglass swan, perched on the corner and overlooking all of downtown Boston. A shadowy figure sits behind it, exactly where the peddler of the Lagoon’s swan boats would have sat. He’s smoking a cigarette, and ignoring my arrival completely.

Hesitantly, I step closer to Templeton. I decided to come up here for a number of reasons, but what sickens me and saddens me the most, is the most selfish of reasons: that I might try and find some closure to our relationship.

If I hadn’t gone to The Strangest Feeling that night, he’d have found me anyway.

Closer still. The ice and snow crunch under every cautious footstep I take. He must know there’s someone here. I don’t know why, but I start to feel a little bit sorry for him at this moment. He looks so lonely up here by himself, with only the moon and his thoughts. He stares out into the misty nothingness of the city below us. After all of the awful things he’s already done, it seems as though he’s regretting something; some decision he had made that he can’t make sense of anymore. The first thing I think of is the night I’d seen him crying at my window. He said he loved me that night. It was the worst lie anyone has ever told me.

If I hadn’t believed him that night, he’d have fooled me eventually.

I move even closer now, still without uttering a word. I want to ask him what’s wrong. I want to ask him what it is he feels at this moment and if there’s something I can do to make things better. But that’s exactly how I’ve treated this man ever since I’ve known him, and that is not the way to deal with a person like Templeton Rate. Besides, I have no idea what he could say to me right now that could possibly satisfy any of my feelings. He still scares me. As much sorrow as he’s brought upon me, and as much tragedy as he’s brought upon everyone else, I still can’t seem to find the words that need to be said. Those laudable words that would make me the hero in my own sad, little world.

I’m standing right next to him now. The freezing air that exhales from inside me intertwines with the smoke from his cigarette. Neither of us can speak. Me, because I’m too scared and still in too much stinging pain; nor him, because he always waits for me to go first. Even when he knows I don’t want to. Especially when he knows I’m too scared to say the first words. He just sits there, sucking that cigarette. Even if there is something on his mind wanting to be set free, he still intends to ignore me completely until I can find the courage to speak first. He holds the once-amphibious change purse in his hand. He rolls it around in his palm. He squeezes it so the front legs kick out from his grip, and then fall limp as he lets go. Again and again.

I recall the first time I’d seen him. We were on the bus. I felt so awkward and uncomfortable, and I’d wished that he would stop staring at me so I could continue my search into the void of the X-shaped screw in front of me. But this sensation I now feel is almost the complete opposite of that moment. As if I might be the one making him anxious. I wish I could remember what it was he said to me that night on the bus that made me so scared of him, because I’d like to say the same words to him now. But I fear that if I should open my mouth at this moment, all I’d be able to ask him is whether or not he still loves me. Just as I had asked Professor Nickwelter in the backseat of his car in one of my most ridiculous moments of utter weakness.

And whether it’s simply to break the silence, or if he’s finally just given up on waiting for me, Templeton speaks; his voice is laced with more than a hint of regret, failure and personal dissatisfaction. He doesn’t turn to me. “All I wanted to do was change the world.” I don’t believe I’ve ever heard him speak this way. He’s never been anything less than the most confident man I’ve known. He nonchalantly tosses the frog in his hand off the rooftop, deep into the misty emptiness below us. “That’s all any of us wants out of life, isn’t it? To change this fucking world?”

“That’s impossible,” I finally say, and I’m surprised to find I’m still a bit out of breath. “Nobody can change the world.”

He stays fixed on what seems to be the tiniest of spots within the city. “You read the journal, didn’t you? By now I’m sure you’re aware of the plans Nelson Hatch had for us. You must know that nothing is too far from the impossible. I mean, how hard would it have been for that chicken to fly for fourteen seconds? We could have done it. But the human race got lazy, didn’t they? It’s always all talk, no action with these people. You did read that journal, right?”

Yes, I read the journal. I saw the winged pigs and frogs. Page by page, they slowly evolved into winged men. I read what Nelson Hatch had written. I read every word and saw every helix of DNA he’d scribbled onto those pages. I saw the blueprints for Claude’s regenerated wing. I saw the white feathery wings under Jerry Humphries’ trench coat right before he knocked me unconscious and locked me away. Before he tried to deny me something I’m sure I wouldn’t have wanted anyway.

Yes, I saw everything I needed to see in that journal. And all of the answers might have been right there in front of me, but still, all I want to know right now is, “Why?”

Why hurt me like you did? Why tell me you loved me, when it’s obvious you didn’t? Why let me believe that I was something special, when it’s clear that I’m not?

“Why? Because this is the way things were meant to be Isabella. Remember what I told you that night in the graveyard?”

“You mean the night you and your mercenaries burned that house down?”

Not surprisingly, he chooses to ignore my question completely. “I told you that to molt is to change,” he says.

Physically or psychologically.

“To change is to evolve,” he says.

Temporarily or permanently.

“It all comes down to evolution.” He takes a long drag of the cigarette. “That’s all I was doing here…” And he blows the smoke out the side of his mouth. “…In a way.”

“But this way…it always has to be your way, doesn’t it?”

Of course, he ignores this question too. At least he turns to face me now. There are tears in his eyes, just like that night at my apartment. The night he said those three horrible words.

“This was everyone’s big chance,” he tells me. “And somehow it all got fucked up.”

I have no idea what he means, because things seem about as bad as they could possibly be right now. What else could he have been trying to prove? What more could he have done to hurt me? As poor as his marks were in my class, I never believed that Templeton Rate could possibly fail at anything.

“I thought I had worked out all of the details,” he continues. “I did all of the tests I needed to do. You saw Jerry Humphries, didn’t you? You saw what I did!” I still don’t speak. Any of the stupid words that want to come out of my mouth are held back by the searing pain that’s returning to my broken arm anyway. Templeton directs his own arm out across the city. “But take a look out there. Where are they all? Do you see any fucking angels?” This is just what Humphries had asked me earlier. Although, where Humphries had been blaming the non-existence of angels on an interruption of faith, Templeton was blaming it on some failure of science.

He gets up from his seat behind the swan. I didn’t notice before, but now I see that this gigantic bird has some sort of electronic device attached to its beak: a metallic cylinder with copper wire wrapped around it, and what appears to be a transformer connected to one end. I also see the familiar box of old, dusty journals sitting inside the hollow swan.

Templeton walks closer to the edge, and takes a look down the side of the tower. “There’s nobody out there!” He flicks the cigarette out of his fingers, and it hovers in the air for moment before blowing fifty-two floors away from us. “I was giving them everything they would’ve needed. But I failed.”

“Who are you to make these decisions anyway? You don’t have the right to make people’s minds up for them, to force your beliefs onto them. You never did.” His back is still turned to me, still looking out over the edge for something that was never there. “This world won’t accept it.”

He whips around, turning to me accusingly. Trying to connect pieces in his head. Forcing pieces that have no right fitting together. “You?” he says, with fire in his dark eyes. “You did it, didn’t you? You threw the wrench into all of this. You fucked it up for everyone!”

“What? Me?” A part of me worries that I already know more than I should, while another part of me thinks this man is giving me far more credit than I deserve. This is another side of Templeton I’ve never seen before; he’s mad at me. And he’s mad altogether; crazed. I’m terrified, and I tighten my arms into myself forgetting how serious the injury to my left arm is. “I didn’t do any of this. This is all your fault!” I try to convince him. “And if I had known how to stop any of this I would have.”

Templeton studies my face for a moment. He studies my words too, as if trying to find some way to tell if I’m being honest or not. “You know more than you give yourself credit for Bella. It’s like you told me before, change is one thing, but evolution dictates another thing entirely.”

“You’ve lost your mind, you know that? This isn’t evolution.”

“Sure it is. Evolution is what separated the continents. It raised the mountains, and wore them back down again. Climates shifted, plant life flourished and habitats disappeared. Species died because they had to die, and then new ones took their places. Life forms evolved to suit their ever-changing environments. But evolution doesn’t have to be something that just happens over time anymore. It’s become something that we can actually control now! Why wouldn’t science be the way to take us to where we’re meant to be? What would the purpose of science be, if not to change us?”

In the university library, Templeton Rate waited until he saw the first changes within me.

“Since the dodo was destroyed, seventy-eight other species of birds have become extinct. And more than half of those were due to mankind’s corrosive ways. Before we know it, we’re going to wipe ourselves out.”

For Halloween, Templeton Rate wanted me to try being something new.

“But just because we like to kill ourselves doesn’t mean we can’t better ourselves at the same time. If one man can enact change through science, then another can just as easily prevent it, correct?” His brown eyes flicker; they’re now accusing me of changing more than I should have. “So what did you do?” he asks me. “Did you tamper with the flux compression generators? Did you sabotage the chemicals I’d injected into the birds? What was it? How did you ruin everything for everyone?”

“I already told you. I didn’t do anything! I’ve just been thrown into this whole mess, without any way of getting out. This is your fault, not mine!”

“It’s not like that at all Bella. You weren’t caught anywhere with your ornithological pants down. You were exactly where you were meant to be. Why do you think I went to all the trouble just to find you in the first place?”

“You mean on the bus that night?”

“No. This goes back much further than your silly birthday party. I’ve known about Hawthorne University’s great Professor Donhelle for quite some time. That’s why I came to the school. You’re the only reason I ever came to Boston. You knew everything I needed to know. I only needed to learn from the best.”

I can’t imagine that this is who Templeton has really been all along. Although the more I think about it, the more it actually makes sense.

“You disappoint me Isabella. I thought you of all people would desire change.”

“But I have changed. Maybe not in the way that you wanted me to. Maybe not in the way you wanted everybody to change, but I can’t deny it anymore. I’m not the same person I was a month ago. Before you came along. I was a completely different person before I met you.”

“Everybody was,” he proudly declares. “That’s the point though; everybody in this world needed a change, but they couldn’t do it, or at least weren’t willing to do it, on their own. They all got lazy, and just rested on their crooked beliefs. Fuck-ups like Nickwelter believed that some sort of redemption could make up for all of the mistakes they’d made in their lives; some miracle to wipe the slate clean. Dipshits like Jerry Humphries all believed that Jesus was coming back, to bring to them whatever it was the world needed; a time of peace on Earth without war or poverty or retards that are dumber than they are. But you know what I say? Let’s just cut out all of this Messianic bullshit crap, and get to the fucking point already. It’s all just talk and no action, right?”

I think about when he told me religion could bring out the strangest ideas, even in seemingly intelligent people. I remember the story he told me about when he was a boy and he met that stranger in church. The stranger that I believed was actually Templeton’s own father. That was the day that Templeton, or Matthew, or whatever his name really was, had decided to form his own beliefs. “So you brought it upon yourself to do something about it? Is that it? You thought that mutating everyone would really solve all of the world’s problems?”

“It couldn’t hurt. Everybody dreams of flying. You told me so yourself when you tried to enlighten me with your own dreams. And you were right; those dreams were the same dreams that Tony had. They were the same dreams that Mitchie dreamed. Zirk and Humphries too.”

Ask anyone what they would want if they possessed the power to have anything at all; ninety percent of those that are telling the truth will tell you they wish they could fly.

“When I had first come to this school to find you, I met another girl. She was a student of yours. I think her name was Summer, but I don’t really remember. Maybe she just looked like a Summer. One night, she told me her dreams; she just blurted them out right then and there. Right when I had her bent over the bed. I never asked her to tell me. And guess what her dream was? She wanted to fly as well. She had tears in her eyes just thinking about the whole thing. She knew deep inside her that this was how we were all supposed to be. So I told her I could give it to her. I made the mistake of telling her everything. She freaked out. I told her that maybe I couldn’t force her to believe in the same things I believed in, but at the very least, I could make her accept it.”

These are same words he said to me in the parking lot. Ironically, that was the day that I had actually stopped believing in him.

“She threatened me. I couldn’t believe it when she said she would actually call the police. We were having a good time up until then. I think it was probably the ecstasy though, now that I think about it. But she never got the chance to make that phone call.”

I think back to the morning I was sitting on the sidewalk outside Templeton’s apartment. I remember the picture of the girl on the telephone pole. Her name was Autumn, not Summer.

“After that, I learned to keep my beliefs to myself. And between you and the journals of Nelson Hatch, I had all of the answers I needed. Because he had the same idea I did. It was Nickwelter himself that had told me stories of those books when he had asked me for a way to help him. And that’s where we are now.”

“The glorious age of Templeton Rate,” I say the words, and I shiver with fright. Templeton is even more dangerous than I thought. How many more Autumns and Becky Chandlers were there?

“If that’s what you want to call it. But I wasn’t doing this for myself.”

He doesn’t notice when I begin to back away from him. He’s too caught up in his delusions.

“I was doing this for everybody.”

I’ve backed right up to the giant swan now. I run my trembling fingers down its icy neck, and into the alcove between its shoulders.

“And I was waiting here for everyone to come up and thank me for what I’d done. But the only person who showed up was you.”

Is it possible that Templeton Rate is really doing good for the world? Are the changes I dream of not as selfish as I first thought? Maybe I was fine, and it was the world that needed to change, just as Templeton has advocated all along? Maybe everybody does want the same thing?

If Templeton Rate had been telling this story, he’d almost make you believe it.

“How was I to know?” he asks, “How was I to know that you were going to ruin everything?” I don’t answer him, but he seems content with not receiving an answer from me anyway. He inches closer.

I reach inside the swan. I feel the thick spine of one of the journals. Did Nelson Hatch truly share the same ideas? Was he just as passionately fanatical as Templeton? Was he just as foolish? Maybe he was simply missing something. One small piece of the puzzle that Templeton found when he found me.

I take the journal into my right hand. My one good hand.

Templeton’s eyes are on fire. I see a hatred inside of him now that can only scratch the surface of what truly courses through his veins. He moves closer with the fullest intention of destroying me. “You ruined everything!!” His fist slams into my face, and there’s the dreadful sound of wet skin against bone. Red blood spurts from my eye and onto the swan’s white back. The pain equals all of the emotional hurt I’ve allowed to pile up inside me for the last twenty-nine years. I clutch the book tighter in my unseen hand.

He jabs me in the neck, and the pain reminds me of the night he left me alone in The Strangest Feeling.

He elbows me in the ribs, and it hurts as much as when I watched him standing there in the parking lot. When I drove away from him for the last time.

He kicks my left arm, and there’s a pain that doubles what I felt when I snapped my ulna and it pierced the skin of my forearm.

He kicks me again. I can’t even tell where his foot lands because it hurts so much. It hurts as much as it did when I first met Templeton Rate.

I’m sitting on the bus again. His hand covers the screw. His bottomless eyes search inside my own. He has plans for me. I want him to turn away and let me go. But I also want him to keep looking, and to realize that all of his ideas are wrong. I want him to get off that bus, so I don’t have to.

I want him to leave me alone.

I want him to forget about me. Forget about Humphries and Nickwelter. Forget about Nelson Hatch and my students and the rest of this world.

I want him to forget about his broken Heaven.

And I want him to go to Hell.

It’s in this precise moment that I remove my arm from the inside of the swan, and I use all of the pain he’s given me. I focus that pain through the journal of Nelson Hatch, and I use it to knock out his front teeth. Templeton stumbles back a little, and I swing the book right into his jaw. I throw it at him, only missing by inches. The journal sails over the edge of the rooftop and hangs in the air for just a moment, before disappearing from sight.

I take another book from inside the bird, and toss it. I throw another. And another. And another, until the sky is full of bird-shaped books, their covers and pages flapping in the wind and descending deep into the city.

“Go to Hell!” I scream at him. There’s only one book left in the box. I take it into my hand and with everything I have left, I throw it. The book doesn’t miss. It hits Templeton hard enough in the mouth that he falls; he falls right over the edge of the rooftop.

I wish I could have seen the look on his face, but all I could see through my bloody tears was the final silhouette of Templeton Rate: the X-shape of his arms and legs spread wide. Just like the void I stared into on the bus.

He hangs in the sky for only a moment before falling fifty-two stories to the courtyard below.

Swallowed by the mists of Lake Avernus.

Through the gateway that leads to Hell.

How poetic I thought, before throwing up one last time.

NEXT CHAPTER

Molt – Chapter Twenty

Full Circle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I was just making sure.”

“How did you get in here?”

“The same way you did, I suppose.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Not anymore?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That man is absolutely crazy.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But…why would you do all of that?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why not me?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s right,” she sniffs.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I won’t,” I tell her. “I promise.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NEXT CHAPTER

Molt – Chapter Nineteen

Frightmolt

“WHAT ARE YOU doing here Professor?” I ask him.

But the man doesn’t have an immediate answer for me. He sits up on my bed, and wipes the sleep from his eyes. I’m a little bit jealous that he has gotten to sleep in spite of the racket outside.

“You know they’re looking for you, don’t you?”

“They? The police?” he asks, slowly regaining his senses. “Of course they are. God, they…they think I killed that poor girl.”

“I know. I was questioned by some detective last week.” The curtains are already shut, and I make sure they’re just a bit tighter. Outside, I hear police sirens blare. But it’s only a Nightingale (Luscinia megarhynchos) making me feel as though I’ve done something wrong.

“And what did you tell him?” he asks me.

In my heart I know that this man isn’t dangerous, although I can’t help but shiver a little when I think of the last conversation we had. When we were in his office, and he told me that he would do anything to have his old job back. My job. At the time, his words scared me a little; as though it was some kind of threat. But there’s no way Professor Nickwelter could ever be capable of committing the crime the police say he’s guilty of? So I tell him exactly what I told Detective Dunphey: “I told him you couldn’t have possibly done it.” I sit down next to him on my bed, but then I get a feeling that maybe I shouldn’t have. “Wait. You didn’t do it, did you?” I ask, moving a little closer to the end of the bed. My clammy hands clutching the bedpost as tightly as they can.

“Christ, how long have you known me Isabelle? Of course there’s no way I could perpetrate something so awful.”

Outside, I hear a violin. But it’s only a Piping Plover (Charadrius melodus), forcing my pity upon him.

“No, of course not.” I can hardly believe I asked him a question like that. “I’m sorry.”

“I could never do something that horrible,” he reiterates.

I try my best to change the subject, but changing subjects has never been one of my strong suits. “I always had a feeling you were fooling around with more of your students. I knew I could never be more to you than just a way to kill some free time.” I know I shouldn’t have uttered the word kill, but I suppose it was the most appropriate word. Nickwelter doesn’t seem to have noticed though; he continues to sit on my bed with his face in his hands.

“How long have you been here?” I ask him. “And how did you get in?”

“There’s a pipe outside. I just shimmied up, and grabbed on to your fire escape. You really should get a better security system back there, you know?”

Tell me about it.

“I don’t know how long I’ve been here though,” he continues. “Two days maybe? Three? I can’t seem to keep track of my time very well anymore.” His focus is fading. This man seems totally consumed by something right now. Something big enough, something important enough that even such mundane details as calendar dates are now completely insignificant to him.

“You probably shouldn’t tell the police that, should they ever ask you.” I can’t help it, but tears begin to well up in my eyes. I wipe my cheek with the palm of my hand. “How did all of this happen, Professor? How did everything go so wrong, so fast? We were all out for dinner a month ago, and I was sitting there agonizing about why my life had seemed so boringly stagnant. But now? That one night out seems like a lifetime ago. Everything has changed since then.”

Outside, I hear a bell chiming ominously. But it’s only a Moluccan Cockatoo (Cacatua moluccensis), making me wonder how I could’ve wrecked my life so badly in just one month.

“I’ll tell you what happened,” he says quietly, turning back towards me now. “It was Templeton Rate that changed everything.”

It really is that obvious, isn’t it?

If only I hadn’t left the restaurant on my own that night.

I confess to him, “That was the night I first met him, you know? It was on my birthday.”

“I know Bella. He followed you from Café d’Averno onto the bus.”

I never told anyone what had happened that night. The night I’d finally decided to change. The night that my own molt had begun. “How do you know that?”

“He told me so himself.”

“You spoke with Templeton? When?”

“A couple of times. But listen to me Isabelle; you need to stop all of this. Stop interfering and just leave it alone.”

Interfering? Interfering with what?” Suddenly from outside, I hear the deafening crash of a train derailment. There’s the unmistakable sound of shattering glass and twisting metal that can’t possibly be more than a block away. But I’m pretty sure it’s only more lyrebirds driving me ever closer to my breaking point. I have to speak up over the reverberation off the alley walls. “Do you have any idea what’s going on in this city right now?” I ask, even though it’s more than obvious.

“Of course I do,” he tells me. “How could anyone ignore all of this madness?”

“Well, you seemed to be sleeping fairly well five minutes ago.”

“I suppose I just got used to it all. I imagine everyone will eventually.”

We sit on my bed together, probably another minute without any words between us. Nickwelter seems to know something more about what’s going on here. I want to ask him about Templeton. I want some kind of explanation for all of this. I want him to tell me the truth. But I worry that all I’ll hear him say is that he still loves me. I think there just might be a limit to the amount of truths I can handle at this point.

“Listen to me Isabelle,” he begins. “I discovered some things about Templeton Rate that I wasn’t supposed to. Okay, I admit that I disliked him from the start; I was jealous of your relationship with him. I wanted to find his secrets, whatever I thought they might have been at the time, in order to make you hate him as much as I did.”

“Professor…I’m so tired. I don’t think – ”

“No. You need to listen to me. I found out the truth about him Isabelle. And it was the truth that killed that poor girl.”

I try to speak again, “I don’t know if I can – ” I’m not even certain what it is that I’m trying to tell him, but I only get so far anyway.

“Isabelle, he was never enrolled at the university. That’s why nobody at Hawthorne knew who he was. That’s why he seemed to just appear out of nowhere.”

If I hadn’t agreed to go to Salem on Halloween with him.

“He doesn’t work as a doorman. There’s no hotel in Boston that’s ever heard of him!”

If I hadn’t woken up in his apartment that morning.

“And he wasn’t born in Schenectady. All those things you’d told me about him aren’t even true. He’s lied to you and everyone else.”

If I hadn’t waited for him in the library.

“Isabelle, he’s not who he claims to be.”

“What are you saying?”

“There is no Templeton Rate. There never was.”

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

“I know it sounds made up,” Templeton had told me that first night. “But that’s really my name.”

If I hadn’t gone into The Strangest Feeling.

“Then who is he? I know I’m not imagining things. I may feel like it, but I know I haven’t lost my mind.”

“I don’t know who he is. But the day after I asked him that very question was the day that Becky Chandler was killed.”

“Are you serious? I’ve been dating a murderer, is that what you’re telling me? Professor, how am I supposed to believe any of this? This is crazy!”

“I know it sounds extreme, but I’m only telling you this because I’m worried about you Bella. Because I don’t want to see you get hurt. Is that so bad?” I can feel the words coming that I know I don’t want to hear. I can sense them on the tip of his tongue and within his quivering hands. “Is it really so horrible to still be in love with you Isabelle?” And there they are.

If only I’d ended this conversation two minutes ago; if I’d never kissed him that first time in Cape Cod, none of these feelings would even exist. And we could be sitting here now trying to help each other, rather than feeling awkward about the whole mess.

If I hadn’t been rejected from the high school basketball team.

“Don’t do this Professor. I can’t go through this again.”

He sniffs at the air, smelling the smoke that still lingers in my apartment. “What’s that smell?” The thought of another cigarette may just be the only thing that keeps me from saying something much too awful to him right now. I cough a little just imagining it. “Were you smoking Bella?”

“I guess I’ve got habits just as bad as yours now Professor.”

“Christ,” he says, with a beleaguered look in his eye. “I feel like I know everything there is to know about you Bella, and then sometimes I feel like you’re someone else entirely.”

I remove the lighter from my pocket. Reaching across him, I take a cigarette from my bedside table. Like a Blue Jay (Cyanocitta cristata) will bury its acorns in the ground many months in advance, I suppose I’ve been hiding these all over my apartment. I don’t know what else to say to him, so I share the nightmare I was having only a few minutes ago. “I was having a dream just now.” I light up the cigarette, and take a puff. “The whole world had changed without me: everybody was everything I ever wanted to be. But I was still just me, and I was all alone.” I cough again, and the smoke mocks me, as it seems to take a bird-like form. “But I have changed. And I’ve always needed to change, but now that it’s actually happened, it scares me more than any nightmare ever could. I have no idea what this thing is that I’ve become.”

There’s a silence between us that is at once comforting but also completely uncertain. I know Nickwelter well enough to know that he’s stumbling to find the right words to say to me. He opens the drawer and removes a cigarette for himself. I pass him the lighter; the lighter only Claude and I had shared until now.

“It does feel good,” he says to me, tasting the cigarette in his mouth, “reverting back to something we once were.”

The two of us sit on my bed, blowing smoke in lonely unison.

“I want to show you something,” I say to him, slowly peeling myself off the bed and walking into the living room. I return to the bedroom with the journal in my hand. Passing it to him, I say that according to Templeton, the book is supposed to contain all the answers I would need. But I have my suspicions that nothing could ever be so absolute.

Paging slowly through the journal however, it seems as though Nickwelter may already be familiar with some of its contents. He turns to me, and through the translucency of the smoke, I see bewilderment in his eyes. “This book belonged to Nelson Hatch, didn’t it? Where did you find this?”

“Templeton gave it to me,” I tell him. “Well, actually it’s more like I stole it. I think he found it inside Hatch’s house in Salem before burning it to the ground.”

He extinguishes his cigarette into the wood of my bedside table, and flips fervently through more of the journal. He stops when he comes to the very same drawing I had stopped at. The pig with the eagle’s wings.

And then he speaks, although mostly to himself it seems, as I have no idea what he’s talking about. “ ‘As Gregor Samsa woke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself in his bed, transformed into a monstrous insect.’ ”

“What’s that?”

“It’s from The Metamorphosis. Kafka. I thought it seemed appropriate. But maybe I was wrong.”

He usually is. I hear Claude in my living room, rattling his beak across the cage bars. “Templeton fixed Claude’s wing,” I say to him. “Did you know that? The wing that you amputated years ago has grown back.”

Nickwelter turns away from the journal, looking at me exclusively now. “What? But then that would mean…”

It means this is the glorious age of Templeton Rate.

“It’s a miracle.” I tell him. “It means that Templeton’s a genius. And he’s capable of more than that.”

“Yes. It’s all in here,” he says, redirecting his attention back to the book in his lap, and flipping through more of the pages. “I’ve heard stories before about the journals of Nelson Hatch. Since before your time, professors at Hawthorne University have been discussing them in secrecy, and contemplating what his science might’ve meant for the world.” He turns to one of the last pages in the old, dusty journal, and his jaw drops at whatever it is that he sees. I only catch a glimpse of it before he closes the book for good.

Maybe I’m not understanding the impact of everything. Maybe there’s still some small detail I’m overlooking. It probably would be completely over my head anyway. “It’s like I’m standing in the middle of a place I’ve never been before,” I tell him, this man I used to love. I’m doing the best I can to try and explain these thoughts and feelings that are flying through my head at four hundred miles-an-hour. “How do I just go back to where I was before all of this madness began?”

But of course he doesn’t understand my feelings. “Do you mean with me?” He never understood the feelings of Isabelle Donhelle.

“Not with you. We’ve tried that before and that didn’t work either.”

He turns back to the closed journal in his lap, rejected again. “I suppose I’ve never really understood what you wanted Isabelle.”

I ignore him completely, and continue along the path my thoughts were taking me. “What I mean is, in an effort to make the right choices for myself, have I made one too many mistakes?” I hate Templeton Rate. A part of me wants nothing more than to slap him across the face for lying to me all this time, and yet another part of me still wants to defend him from my own selfish thoughts. To preserve his genius. Even after all of this. Because maybe this part of me still loves him too.

Claude’s rattling becomes more furious, but I know he’s just excited to be back home. This is his way of readjusting to familiar territory.

“Isabelle, Templeton is dangerous. But as much as I despise the man, this is all much bigger than him. I didn’t know it before now, but there’s so much more at stake here than your bird’s wing or Hawthorne University. It’s so much more than that racket outside. Or even my being here right now.”

“What’s all of that supposed to mean?”

“My point is that…well, we all make mistakes in our lives. And usually there’s never anything you can do to fix all the mistakes that you’ve made along the way. But if you have that chance, you take it. I should have left Beth when the decision was an obvious one, but now it’s so much more complicated. I didn’t understand all of it myself at the time, but now I know what Templeton Rate is capable of.”

I know Templeton much better than he does, at least I think I do anyway, but even I don’t know everything he’s capable of.

It looks like maybe the flamingo has gotten the better of me.

“It was Nelson Hatch,” he says, shaking the book with one hand, indicating that the truth really was within those pages after all. “He was the key to all of this.”

I reach out, and take the journal from his hand. I flip through the pages again, looking for answers within text that seems to contain nothing more than questions.

Page by page, new images unfold before me. I read some of what I’d only skimmed through before now. And I only need to see the one diagram on the last page before I really do know the truth. Before I truly realize that this molt may not be finished quite yet.

If Nelson Hatch’s journal had been telling this story, it would be giving away the ending.

It seems impossible. Like fourteen seconds for a chicken.

Outside, I hear a woman screaming. But it’s only a rooster, beating me to the punch. From my living room, Claude’s beak continues to rattle along the metal bars. But the rattling echo becomes deeper, louder. It’s not Claude doing all of the work anymore. I stand up now, and I grip the book in my hands a little bit tighter. The first thing that comes to my mind is the fire escape outside my window. The same way Templeton came into my apartment. The way Nickwelter came inside. The way Jerry Humphries probably got in too. The sweat on my palm makes the book feel slippery. I want to peek around the corner, but I don’t know if I have anything left in me to endure being scared anymore. I tell myself that it could just as easily be another superb lyrebird making the racket instead.

It doesn’t seem as though Nickwelter is hearing the clatter outside; he’s far too engrossed in the discoveries he’s made. “Isabelle, Nelson Hatch was on to something unimaginable, and it looks as though Templeton knew about it. Maybe he is a genius.”

“Professor?” I ask, without really asking a question.

He doesn’t hear me. He doesn’t sense my concern. But he does say possibly the only thing that could scare me even more at this moment. “Templeton Rate could very well save us all!”

I don’t even let the words sink into my head before I interrupt his thoughts for good. “Professor! I think someone is here.”

“What? Where?”

“I think somebody is coming up the fire escape.” The rattling continues for a bit, and then stops suddenly with a loud metal clank. Like somebody has landed heavily on the balcony outside my window.

“We’ve got to get out of here Bella!”

It’s quiet now. If I clenched this book any tighter, surely it would break apart in the vice-like grip of my sweaty hand.

Peering around the corner and into my living room, I see them. Two shadowy black silhouettes outside on my fire escape, gazing back at me. I want to take Claude from his cage, but there’s not enough time. Something tells me that it’s not Templeton, but whoever these men are, and for whatever reason they’re here exactly, all I know is that I need to get out of my apartment before I become the next Becky Chandler.

Nickwelter is already at my front door, urging me to follow him. “I have to get Claude,” I yell at him.

“There’s no time for that Isabelle,” he says. “We need to leave. Now!”

One of the men outside taps on the window with something hard and heavy. I get a chill when I see the metallic glint of a gun in his hand. But I don’t want to leave my bird behind. Hasn’t he gone through enough already? “I’ll come back for you Claude,” I say, and I hope he believes me. But birds don’t know promises, and they’ll never hold you to them.

I turn back to Nickwelter, standing in the open doorway, and there must be some kind of look in my eyes that’s powerful enough to make him change his mind. He runs across the living room, towards the birdcage. I think it’s maybe because he really does love me. And who knows, maybe he always had but I couldn’t see it until now?

One of the men says something, but I can’t make out the muffled words through the glass.

They try to slide the window open, but it won’t budge, probably due to the icy cold. They don’t waste another second before kicking it in. I hear the breaking glass, but I’m already running out the door.

Nickwelter tells me to keep running. I don’t even look back at him, and I hate myself for it. With the journal and a cigarette still in my hands, I run out into the hallway in my socks. I’m already down the first flight of stairs when I hear a gunshot. It’s definitely not coming from the lyrebird. And then I hear another one, and what sounds like a body hitting the floor of my living room. I can’t imagine any bird could replicate such a particular combination of sounds.

Once in the lobby, I figure I can either exit through the front onto Newbury Street, or I can head out the back door and into the alley where my car is parked. I consider for a moment that should get into my car and leave everything behind. I could forget about all of this and drive back up north to Ville Constance. I could get a job at the Blackbird’s Grill. I’m sure Cindey would recommend me, even if I haven’t had a baby. But the best idea I have is to drive directly to the police station; surely there would be someone there that can help me. Someone that might help this entire city. I can’t do this on my own anymore, I think to myself. And I realize that I’ve changed even more than I’d thought; I used to be able to, and insisted upon, dealing with any problems I had on my own. But apparently I’ve molted into something much weaker. This new me simply isn’t strong enough. Maybe I should tell Detective Dunphey about the missing swan boats I saw in the university lab too.

I hear footsteps coming down the stairs, indicating I definitely don’t have the time to be standing here any longer. I throw the back door open with such vigor, that the colony of ring-billed gulls that had been loitering in the alley all morning fly off all at once, but still without making a sound. The wall of wings and feathers that springs forth before me is enough to stop me in my tracks.

And when my vision clears, I see someone sitting on the hood of my car. It’s Zirk. He’s still wearing that dirty black housecoat, and he’s carving something into my car with a knife. He doesn’t even turn when he speaks to me; he remains focused on whatever it is he’s doing.

“Hello gorgeous,” he says, his vocal chords still rumbling peculiarly.

Before I can respond, the two men that broke my window and most assuredly shot Professor Nickwelter arrive. I don’t turn around, but I can feel the gun behind me. I’m trapped; they’ve got me cornered. I curse to myself, realizing that I didn’t have my car keys with me anyway, and that I could have just run out onto Newbury Street when I had the chance ten seconds ago. I think I called myself a ‘goober,’ but it could have just been some other charmingly derogative nickname.

“There’s nowhere left to run, Professor,” Zirk continues. “I think you’d better come with us.” He pockets his knife and jumps off the hood of my car into the snow. He lands awkwardly, and stumbles forward a bit, as though his legs were shorter than he’s used to.

The flannel sleep pants I’m wearing have large pockets, big enough for me to slide the journal into. I think I’m being incredibly sneaky, but I’m sure that these guys simply don’t care what I’m doing with it. “What are you doing here?” I ask them all simultaneously, hoping that between the three of them they can come up with an answer that will satisfy me. “And where’s Templeton?” I try my best to not let my emotions get the better of me. I could easily just give up with the thought that Nickwelter is probably bleeding on my carpet right now.

“There’s that question again,” Zirk comments. “Is Templeton Rate really the only thing you care about? Because it sure seems like it to me.” I notice that the word ‘PUFFIN’ has been carved on my hood, right next to the last one. And this time it’s much larger, and much rougher. Messy, like how a five-year old might try and spell.

Puffin?” I ask out loud, but really just to myself.

“That’s me,” he boasts proudly. “Everyone needs a nickname.” He scratches at himself through the housecoat, trying to track down an itch somewhere under there. Motioning to the men behind me, Zirk asks “Have you met Rob and Bob yet?”

I turn around and get a good look at these two. These were the same two kids I saw in the south laboratory earlier this morning; the two that claimed to be Harvard students. Bob is holding the gun. I guess handguns don’t seem like such a big deal until you’re in your pajamas and being chased into an alley, because I’m completely frozen in fear at the sight of the gleaming weapon. Bob’s the tubby one I spoke to earlier, and I notice now he’s wearing a t-shirt that simply says ‘Virginia’ across the front. I thought there was something strange about the shape of his head before, and now I can tell that it seems disproportionately small in comparison to the rest of his body.

Rob is much more lively than his motionless friend, and his movements are erratic; twitching, shifting his weight from one foot to the other and darting his head back and forth like a bird.

“What’s going on here? What do you want from me?”

“Templeton wants to see you,” Zirk tells me. He’s still got the same bandage over the bridge of his nose, but the crusty, bruised infection I’d noticed earlier seems worse than it was before. Perhaps it’s just an incredibly bizarre coincidence, but it reminds me a little of the colorful orange, yellow and blue plates of an Atlantic Puffin (Fratercula arctica). As does the rumbling under his breath after every sentence. He scratches himself some more underneath his black housecoat.

I take a look up at my broken window, and I’m relieved to see that Claude is unharmed, and watching us all from his cage. Now that I think of it though, I think the earlier gunshots must have scared off all of the other birds in the area. The alley seems emptier, and quieter, than it’s been all morning.

“I think I’m fine without him,” I finally respond. Motioning towards my car, I hope they might have the courtesy to let me go. Maybe these guys have what it takes to respect a girl’s decision. And I’m praying they have absolutely no idea just how scared I am right now.

But Zirk grabs my arm, preventing me from going anywhere. His grip feels tight, even through my heavy sweatshirt. I struggle to break free, but his hand tightens even more. I plead for him to let go. “Come on now Professor,” he says to me, his fishy breath making me sick to my stomach. “There’s no point in struggling anymore.”

“Hey Puffin,” one of the guys behind me says. “You ever seen a movie where the prisoner begs for freedom, and they actually let her go?”

Zirk doesn’t have an answer for him, he remains as calm as can be. I want to scream, but instead, I defy my captor by wriggling my arm out of the sleeve of my sweatshirt. From my peripheral, I notice Bob and Rob moving closer. So I give it everything I’ve got. In my free hand, I’m still holding onto my smoking cigarette. I flick it into Zirk’s face; it sizzles a little on the bandage between his eyes before bouncing off the bridge of his nose and into the snow. Twisting away from him, and using the free arm underneath my shirt, I pull the sweater over my head and slide my other arm out of the sleeve. Zirk falls back: the bold, proud, yellow Hawthorne University font covering his face.

I don’t even know how I do it, but I kick backwards and hit Bob, knocking him backwards into Rob and against the side of my car. The handgun hits the ground, and spins on the icy cement. I pick it up and head west down Public Alley 434. I hear the familiar “Bye-bye Bella” calling out behind me as I leave Claude again, and I try my best to ignore it.

As I near Exeter Street, and just as I’m feeling as though I’ll get out of this mess once and for all, Jonah Mitcherson appears, hobbling into the middle of the alley on his crutches. He still has shorts on too, but he’s now wearing a knit cap to at least keep his head warm.

“What do you guys want from me?” I ask him, hoping for a different answer than I received from the other three.

Of course I don’t get one. “It’s not us, Professor Donhelle. It’s him.” He licks his lips with his large tongue. It appears abnormally thick and oily, frighteningly similar to that of a flamingo. “Templeton Rate just wants everyone to be happy.”

As selfish as Templeton’s always been, I find this more than a little hard to swallow. I point the gun towards Jonah, but I know I wouldn’t have the guts to actually use it. “I’m going to the police. And you can tell Templeton that they won’t be happy.”

I hear footsteps in the snow behind me, and I know that the three men I’ve already eluded are fast approaching. Maybe it’s the adrenaline pumping through me. Maybe it’s the realization that I’ve finally run out of options tonight. Or maybe it’s the fact that I’m not the same person I was a month ago, but something inside me makes me kick this man’s crutch out from under him. Mitchie Mitcherson falls face-first into the snow, and I turn the gun back towards the other three.

I order them to let me walk away from this, and they all step back at my command. It feels good to have this kind of power, although I know I don’t have any idea how to work this cold metal thing in my quivering hands. But it doesn’t matter. With fuzzy penguin socks in flight, I run out onto Exeter Street. I sprint by a deceit of Blacksmith Lapwings (Vanellus armatus), sounding something like popcorn popping. I pass an unkindness of Ravens (Corvus corax), sounding remarkably like television static. I’m not paying attention to the street signs, but I must have run four city blocks already. The morning sunrise not only beams off of the glass veneer of the Hancock Tower to my left and the Prudential Tower to my right, but also off the cold metal gun in my hand. I think I hear birds chirping. Actual chirping. Not making noises like electrical generators or screeching tires, but actual peeping, cheeping, tweeting and twittering. It’s extraordinary.

Then in my most glorious moment, I slip on some black ice, and I slide right into an oncoming car. My body soars across the street. I barely even have enough time to register the irony of how much I’ve yearned to fly over the years. I hit the curb, and bounce into a snow bank. My head thumps hard on the bottom step of a brownstone’s brick staircase.

My body hurts. I’m frozen still on my back and staring straight up into the sky. I hear the car door creak open, and I raise my head just high enough to see Humphries walking towards me. Jerry Humphries, in his old weather-beaten trench coat. My head drops back down, cushioned a little by the fresh snow. I taste blood. My left arm is in an astonishing amount of pain.

He picks up the handgun I dropped, and then crouches down beside me, leaning in close. “Funny running into you here,” he says. I’d almost like to give him credit, as this is probably the wittiest thing I’ve ever heard Humphries say, but I really cannot justify it at this moment. God, my back hurts, but I think I’m more bothered by the smell of this man’s breath.

I can’t move. I can’t speak. My body is in shock. I can only dart my eyes back and forth between Humphries’ ugly visage and the sky above us. The clouds have darkened already, and have taken on a new, somewhat bruised colorization.

Without the benefit of anyone interrupting him, Humphries continues. “Look at you Bella; lying there all helpless. Like a poor little bird with clipped wings.” His eyes scuttle across my body, making me feel even more defenseless. “You know I’ve always imagined you this vulnerable. What I would do with you! What I would do…and what you might do for me.” He leans in closer, studying my lips as close as he can. He takes his finger, his wretched, hairy little chewed-up finger, and touches my bottom lip, then wipes the blood from the corner of my mouth. “Can you stand?” he asks me.

I try to, but I can’t.

He asks, “Can you lift your head?”

Again I try, even though success would mean bringing my face that much closer to this despicable man that I’ve spent the last eight years or so trying to avoid. But I can’t move my neck either. I can hear his ugly car still running. I can smell the exhaust polluting the air and my nostrils.

“No? Is that it then? Is this all the fight you’ve got to give?” He seems upset, as though expecting so much more from me. “Surely you’ve got more of a fire inside you than this?” He stands up, puts his hands on his hips and looks around; he looks around as if trying to figure out what to do next. “So all you can do is just stare up to the heavens? Is that it?” I don’t know if he’s really looking for an answer from me, or if he’s simply content with having this conversation by himself. “Well, there’s nothing up there for you Bella. There’s nothing up there that’s any good for any of us down here. I don’t know if there ever was.”

I don’t want to try and make sense of his ramblings, even if I possibly could. But he’s not overly concerned about receiving a response anyway. He looks at the handgun, nesting within his filthy grip. “Maybe I should just end it all for you right now then? Would you like that Bella?” I give him no answer, although I almost wish I could say ‘yes’ at this point. Next, he points the gun directly at me. “Do you want to share the same fate as Nickwelter? Or that girl? Do you want me to do the same for you as I did for her?”

I try to get the words out of my mouth. “You…?” And due to the numbness and pain, it’s only now that I realize my mouth has been full of icy snow. “You…k-killed Becky?”

“Well, we wouldn’t want Templeton to get his hands dirty, would we? I mean, dirtier than they usually are, that is. Have you ever noticed how mucky his hands are? And you just let him do whatever he wanted with them, didn’t you? You let him put those hands wherever the hell he wanted to.” I’ve never heard Jerry Humphries go on like this before. There’s an inferno inside him that’s fueling his emotions; consuming him. “I do all of his dirty work for him. I have been for months now.”

I never would have believed Humphries’ connection to Templeton ran as deep as it apparently does. I knew there was something strange about their relationship, but this? To have the audacity to actually commit a murder? The feeling is returning to my mouth, and I almost wish it wasn’t, since the pain is unbearable. “But what’s in it for you, Jerry? Why have you done these things for him?”

“He’s a brilliant man, Templeton Rate. He was smart enough to figure out how to have you Bella. I’ve been trying for years, if you haven’t noticed.” There’s jealousy in his green eyes; nothing I haven’t sensed before from the man. But now there’s an underlying calmness about Jerry Humphries. Some kind of acceptance for whatever has already been done. Or possibly for what’s still yet to come.

“But what’s he going to do for you Jerry?”

“He’s already done everything. And he’s letting me be a part of it all.”

“All of what?”

“Things are about to change around here Bella. All of the misery and sadness. The depression, hopelessness, desolation and all of the shittiest, most fucked-up, unfair feelings that everyone has to go through in this life; they’re all coming to an end.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Some call it Armageddon. Some call it the Apocalypse. But no matter who you are, you believe that the end of the world is always signaled by the arrival of angels.” Humphries looks at me. His eyes are urging me to agree with him, to acknowledge what he’s saying as fact, even though I now realize he’s utterly mad. “Look around you!” he screams, his arms spread wide. “Do you see any angels here? Obviously the end of the world has already come, or else things wouldn’t be as fucked as they are. But there was no warning. There was no messenger from Heaven.”

I still can’t move. If I could, I’d physically try to knock some sense into this man. Instead, I try my best to do it verbally. “Maybe that’s because it hasn’t happened yet,” I suggest. “Or better yet, maybe all of that religious mumbo jumbo is just made up? Wouldn’t that actually make more sense?”

“That’s bullshit. The truth is that obviously no angel is ever going to want to come back to all of this. Would you want to? Would you come back here if you had it so fucking good up there?” Humphries has always been a religious man, I know because of all of the times I’ve rejected his invitations to go to church with him. But this is bordering on psychotic behavior. Much more than a Jesus fish could ever hint at.

“So humanity is doomed then?” I ask him, wondering what it will take to make him stop. “You’re saying that we should just give up since there won’t be anyone to save us anyway?”

“Haven’t you been paying attention? Of course someone will save us.” I can tell from his eyes that this man really has lost his mind. “Someone is already saving us, and his name is Templeton Rate.”

It’s just as Templeton once told me: “I can’t believe how religion can bring out the most idiotic ideas in people.

Is this really what Templeton wished for? Is this really what he believed?

The words still ring in my head; something else he said to me in the university parking lot, the day I broke up with him. “Everyone will believe in something different,” he told me. “And if you’re lucky enough, some of them will even believe anything that you tell them.”

Is Humphries just believing whatever Templeton had told him? Or is this really the end of the world? Above me, I notice that a Black-Capped Chickadee (Poecile atricapillus) is trapped inside the brownstone. It tries to fly out through the closed window, repeatedly hitting his beak against the glass in fits of fury. In some American superstitions, if a bird flew into your house, it was the bearer of important news, but if it couldn’t get out again, some believed it was a sign of death.

I spot a Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens) pecking at the wooden door at the top of the steps. In Alaska, it’s believed that if a woodpecker tapped on your door, it brought bad news, possibly even the death of someone in the family.

I’ve also heard that the call of a Whip-poor-will (Caprimulgus vociferus) or the hoot of the Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus) was sometimes a sign of death or bad luck. Beyond the already all-too familiar sounds of train whistles, machine guns and wood chippers, I can hear them both; a whip-poor-will to the east and a hoot to the south.

Jerry Humphries moves towards me again, reaching his hand out to grab me. But I find the strength to resist. My body hurts so much, but I won’t have this man lay another finger on me. I pull my legs in, and kick out with both of them. My feet connect with his rib cage, and he falls back.

I kick him further than I expected I might, as though he weighs far less than he should. He lands with such weightlessness in fact, that it actually seems to aid him in quickly getting back on his feet. Immediately, he turns his attention back towards me. “A change is coming Bella. There’s nothing you can do to stop it.” He’s right in my face again already; his speed is hard to believe. “And everyone, except you, is going to have Templeton to thank for it.”

“Why not me? Don’t I get a choice in all of this?”

“Maybe you did, but I’m taking that choice away from you. Because you don’t deserve it. You don’t deserve any of it, you ungrateful bitch.”

The wind catches his coat, blowing it away from his body momentarily. And I think I understand him now. I don’t believe what I’m seeing, but I think I am accepting it; I’m certain that I see a pair of white feathery wings underneath his coat.

And that’s right about when he pulls the gun back and strikes me in the head.

That’s the moment that I fall unconscious.

And that’s when this story actually begins.

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