Molt – Chapter Eighteen

The Glorious Age of Templeton Rate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s absolute chaos.

It’s utterly overwhelming.

It has to be Templeton Rate.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Fuck you,” he replies.

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

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

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

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

“No I don’t. Where’s Templeton?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maybe it’s my fault?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s Isabelle. Let me in.”

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

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

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

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

Like a hiding place.

Like a death trap.

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

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

“Mitchie let us in.”

Mitchie? Who’s Mitchie?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Bella?”

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

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

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

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

“What is it?” I ask him, terrified.

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

“A tool? A tool for what?”

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

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

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

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

Me?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Come with me.”

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

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

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

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

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

“See?” Templeton asks.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Even though they were twice as bad.

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

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

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

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

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

Claude flaps his re-grown wing with enthusiasm.

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

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

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

But I did.

If only Claude had stayed missing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or is it getting worse and worse?

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

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

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

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

“No.”

“But how did—”

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

“No.”

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

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

The glorious age of Templeton Rate.

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

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

“I thought you said Professor Nickwelter killed her?”

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

I hate it when he talks like this.

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

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

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

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

“What book?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One for sorrow, two for mirth,

Three for a funeral, four for a birth,

Five for silver, six for gold,

Seven for a secret not to be told,

Eight for heaven, nine for hell,

And ten for the devil’s own sel’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Professor Nickwelter?

NEXT CHAPTER

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Molt – Chapter 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 Fifteen

The One with the Big, Bold MURDERED on it

MONDAY, NOVEMBER THIRD. I haven’t seen or heard from Templeton for three days now. He drove me back home Friday night, just as I’d requested, but he didn’t stay the night. And he didn’t take the bus home, claiming he’d rather walk across Boston than ride the filth that is public transit. I chose not to remind him of where we were the first time we’d met. He said he still had some trick and treating to do before the night was over. That was how he said it: trick and treating. Templeton told me he’d be working at the hotel all weekend, but he said the least he could do was give me a call on a smoke break. Turns out, he could still manage to do even less than that. I have yet to find out which hotel he works at. He also should have been in my Field Identification class this morning, but his seat was noticeably empty. Noticeable by me, at least. I’m not sure if the other students are aware that Templeton Rate is even supposed to be in the class.

It’s been a week now since Claude went missing. I still wake up every morning at 3:00 AM to crack open the mouthwash, but now I include another desperate search along the way. When I looked out my window this morning, all I noticed was the foot of snow that had fallen overnight. I stare at my buried car, and I dread the commute. There’s no worse time to see a foot of snow when it’s a Monday morning and you already had no desire to leave your apartment.

I recall the first day of snow as being the day I made a fool of myself in the university library. That was four weeks ago now.

If I hadn’t slept with Templeton Rate.

My class has just ended and I catch myself daydreaming. I’m staring out the window of my taxonomy classroom, watching a murder of American Crows (Corvus brachyrhynchos) adjust their flight patterns in accordance with the afternoon’s falling snow.

A knock on the door behind me snaps me back to attention. I’m expecting to see him standing there; I’ve already envisioned the dirty hands and piercing eyes under an icy-wet head of hair.

But it’s not Templeton who has come to see me this afternoon, but rather Anton Frye, the rarely seen Dean of Faculty at Hawthorne University. With him is one officer of the Boston Police Department.

“Isabelle, may we have words?” Anton Frye doesn’t have many friends within the school that I’m aware of, which is likely due to his instinctive nature of speaking to intimidate. That being said, our relationship allows me to know him as Anton, whereas most of the other faculty simply refer to him as Dean. Or The Dean, as he has routinely preferred.

If The Dean had been telling this story, nobody would dare argue the facts.

“Of course Anton. Good afternoon officer.”

“It’s detective, actually.” He responds in a completely expected thick Boston accent. He surveys the room quickly before suggesting, “Would you mind if we sat somewhere a little more private?”

I turn back to the window to see the crows have disappeared completely.

I close the door to my office as Anton Frye and Detective Dunphey take their seats. Dean Frye is a wiry little man, with round glasses that seem much too big for his head. Dunphey is his exact opposite: a large bear of a man, but his years on the force have seen what muscle I imagine he used to have overtaken by fat. Of particular distraction are the wattles of his throat. The two of them bring an image to my mind of the Looney Tunes characters Foghorn Leghorn, a Kentucky rooster, and Egghead Jr., a baby chick. Both are of the same species, Gallus gallus.

“What can I do for you gentlemen?” I feel a slight pain in the back of my throat as I swallow.

“I’m sure you saw the news last night?” Anton hints aggressively.

“Uhm, no. What news was that?”

The two of them glance at each other, as though suspicious of my naïve response. “Do you read the paper?” the detective asks.

“No. I’m sorry. What’s happened?”

Detective Dunphey pulls a rolled-up Boston Globe from the inside pocket of his uniform. He tosses it face-up in front of me. The date is this morning’s and the headline reads:

SOUTH BOSTON WOMAN MURDERED

I look back up to both The Dean and the detective, still uncertain of what this is all about, and how it might have anything to do with me. “I…I’m sorry. I don’t understand.” I’m quick to assume that this is a clue to the whereabouts of a certain parrot.

“Neighbors reported gunshots last night, but there were no signs of bullets,” Detective Dunphey starts, coldly delivering the facts. “This woman was found dead in her apartment. She was keeled over with her head in the kitchen sink. The lights were left on, and a neighbor across the way could see the body from her window. There was a hunting knife dug into her skull.”

I shiver a little, and turn back to the paper. The front-page story gives no names; no details at all have been revealed to the public yet. I look up again, my eyes questioning the both of them.

The detective says, “Her name was Rebecca Chandler.”

I shrug my shoulders. “Should I know her?”

Anton Frye fills in the blanks for me. “Isabelle. Becky was one of your students.”

What?

“And apparently,” Anton starts with a gulp in his throat, “she and Nickwelter were engaged in some sort of…extra-curricular relationship.”

“Professor Nickwelter?” I ask, as though there could be more than one.

“That’s right. The police spoke with his wife, but no one has any idea where he might be.”

The picture on the paper is not clear, and all I can make out is a body bag on a gurney being wheeled into the back of an ambulance. “Oh my God…” Sickened, I push the paper back to the detective and then sit back in my chair.

He takes the paper back and rolls it up in his large hands. “Obviously we want to find this man and ask him a few questions. We don’t have any motives, but for now we have to consider him our prime suspect.”

“Professor Nickwelter?” I think back to last Tuesday, to my last conversation with him. He told me he had left his wife. He said he’d do anything to have his position at the school restored. But he wouldn’t be dumb enough to do something like this, would he? “This…this is horrible. There’s no way he could have done this.”

Anton pushes, “You seemed to know him much better than anyone else, Isabelle. You two were…friendly, yes?”

Friendly? He does an absolutely horrid job at dodging the details, especially since he knows the truth anyway. Anton Frye was the man who suspended Professor Nickwelter from the school for a year. Detective Dunphey cocks his head at The Dean’s statement, as though hearing this information for the first time. He leans his body in over the desk, closer to me. “Did you and the suspect have a relationship, Miss Donhelle?” He points the rolled-up newspaper towards me menacingly.

“Do you have to refer to him as ‘the suspect’? I can’t imagine Professor Nickwelter could ever murder someone.”

Anton Frye does the detective’s work for him. “Answer the question please.”

“Yes. We dated for a while. But that was two years ago.”

The detective writes my answers down on a notepad. “Was he married at the time?”

“Yes. He was married. How is that relevant to what’s happened? Like I said, that was two years ago.”

My question is ignored, in favor of one more of the detective’s. “When was the last time you spoke with the sus – with Mr. Nickwelter?”

“Last week. Tuesday, I think.”

“How would you explain his behavior? Can you describe it to me?” His pen is ready and waiting for anything I’ve got to say. His other hand is big enough to hold both the newspaper and a notepad.

“He…um, he told me…he told me that he still loved me.” I blew it off at the time, but maybe now I’m starting to piece together the significance of that statement. The two men are simultaneously putting the same pieces together. “But I have a boyfriend. I told him that. And I told him it wasn’t going to work between us.”

“Between you and your boyfriend?”

“No.” I stop as soon as I register the detective’s misunderstood words. Whether he’d meant to be or not, he was already one step ahead of me. Things really aren’t going to work between Templeton and me, are they? There’s nothing about him that’s right for me, is there? I must have known it all along too, but I’ve waited until now to tell myself the truth. “My relationship with Professor Nickwelter was over. I told him that.”

“How did he react?”

“Well, he was angry. I know he was still bitter over the fact that I had taken over his position at the school. And he told me that I was risking my own career, and that he would do anything to get his job back.”

“Risking your own career? How exactly?”

If Detective Dunphey had been telling this story, he wouldn’t have started until he had all the facts.

“My boyfriend. He…he’s one of my students.”

Anton perks up again. “A student?”

“His name is Templeton Rate.”

Templeton Rate?” he asks. “I’ve never heard of him. Who is he?”

“Well, he’s a new student. I think.”

“You think?”

“I don’t really know any of these kids. Students are just students. They’re completely interchangeable. They’re all generic to me. Just names on reports.”

Detective Dunphey gets back to his reason for being here. “Can I ask where you were this weekend? Did you go anywhere at all?”

“I was out Friday night. With Templeton. We went up to Salem for Halloween. But I was home the rest of the weekend. I didn’t go anywhere.”

Anton throws another suspicious look my way. “Did you hear about the fire in Salem on Friday night?” I instantly recall seeing the fire trucks speed by us as Templeton and I were leaving the city, and I remember the burning house past the graveyard. But I don’t say anything; I let him continue. “Five houses in Salem burned to the ground on Halloween night. Five old abandoned houses that have been empty since the seventies. One of those houses was where Nelson Hatch lived.” Detective Dunphey turns to Dean Frye, wondering what the point is. The Dean obliges his unspoken query, and turns directly to the detective to explain. “Nelson Hatch founded this school in 1932. He was born in Brooklyn in 1895, and he died in Salem in 1974.”

The detective fails to see the relevance to this bit of disconnected information, and returns to the subject at hand. “One last question Miss Donhelle: do you have any idea where Mr. Nickwelter might be? Any ideas at all?”

“I don’t. I’m sorry.”

Dunphey tosses the newspaper into my trash, and hands me a card with his name and number on it. I didn’t know police carried their own business cards. “Thank you for your time.” He gets up from his seat, letting Dean Frye know that there are still a few more questions that need to be asked. Anton glares at me once more before they leave my office together. The bold MURDERED hangs over the edge of my wastepaper basket, and I can’t help but think that of all the wrong things Templeton is for me, the worst might possibly be the death of my career.

If Becky Chandler had been telling this story, it would have a dreadfully horrible ending.

I stay in my office for another fifteen minutes, attempting to figure out everything that’s fallen apart in so short of a time. As unbelievable as it sounds, a student of mine is dead. Professor Nickwelter is missing and accused of this girl’s murder. Claude is still gone too, probably buried under the snow somewhere and wondering why I haven’t come looking for him. Templeton still hasn’t called me. I’m trying to figure out which of these has me more unnerved.

The falling snow outside makes me realize that this is definitely not the change I was looking for.

If Templeton hadn’t avoided me for the last three days; if he hadn’t taken me to Salem and scared me like he did; if he hadn’t climbed up my fire escape and told me that he loved me; if he hadn’t made me fall for him in The Strangest Feeling; if he hadn’t followed me onto the bus.

What am I doing here? I never would have made such poor judgment calls a year ago, back when I had my act together. Sure, I’d slept with Professor Nickwelter, but I knew from the very start that was the wrong thing to be doing. I wasn’t fooling myself then like I am now.

Or was I?

Maybe this is every relationship. Maybe this is normal. Maybe there could be someone somewhere who might be jealous of what I have for once. Maybe it was Antonia the ostrich. Maybe Becky Chandler. Maybe it was the dead girl named Autumn.

No. I can’t accept that any of this my fault. I’m better than that. I won’t put everything I’ve worked towards in jeopardy.

I need to find Templeton.

I need to talk to him.

I need to tell him that everything about him is completely wrong for me.

And I need to tell him that it’s over between us.

But as I get up from my seat, the first thing I do is throw up in my wastepaper basket. Everything has literally come to the surface. It’s all over the morning paper, the one with the big, bold MURDERED on it. I crouch over the trash for a moment longer, completely light-headed. I don’t want to smell this, but it can’t be helped. I don’t want to look, but I do. What I’ve coughed up is startlingly black, like wet coffee grounds. Shining like the sheen of the dead raven on my textbook.

Five minutes later, I’m putting on my coat and taking the trash with me. I lock up my office behind me and slowly make my way outside, bracing myself against the wall with one arm the entire way. A couple of students approach me, laughing as they pass by, and I’m careful to not to appear as awful as I feel.

Opening the door into the courtyard, it’s actually a relief to be out in the cold and to feel the snow fall on my face again. It helps me to feel less nauseous. There’s a dumpster just ahead of me, and I toss the wastepaper basket and all of its contents into it: the empty coffee cups, the scribbled phone messages, the half-eaten tuna fish sandwiches, the newspaper and the throw up.

I follow the path to the parking lot. I see the same crows I’d spotted earlier from the classroom window; they’re hopping around, bumping into one another and pecking at the fresh snow in an attempt to find buried treasures. The word ‘murder’ comes to mind again, but I try not to think about it.

I stop for a moment and watch them. I marvel at their intelligence; the systems they use in order to know exactly how to find what they’re looking for. Suddenly they stop, all six of them, and look up at me. Their beaks point in unison towards the school. I realize that if I’m going to find Templeton, I’m going to have to start in the south laboratory.

I’m only a footstep away from the lab door when I begin to feel woozy again. My equilibrium is off, and my vision blurs. I reach out for the door handle, but I crumple to the floor instead. It takes me a few seconds before I can regain my senses. Thankfully, no one is around to see me like this.

I try my key in the lock, but it doesn’t turn. Checking the key, I make sure it’s labeled ‘South Lab.’ I bang on the door a few times, with no answer.

Hearing footsteps coming towards me, I straighten myself out, hoping I don’t look too horrible. But it’s only Jerry Humphries that approaches, in the same grubby trench coat and with his usual revoltingly cheerful greeting.

“Good afternoon Bella,” he starts, completely unaware that I’m really not myself today. “I saw some thug with a badge wandering the halls with The Dean. Someone in trouble?”

“It’s really not a matter that’s of any concern to you Jerry.” The inside of my mouth is dry, and it’s almost a challenge to speak. There’s a water fountain on the opposite wall, so I step across the floor and drink some quickly. Humphries stares at me, watching every gulp I take.

“It doesn’t have anything to do with Professor Nickwelter, does it? I haven’t seen him around today.”

“Please,” I urge him, trying not to visualize the front page of the Globe. “I really don’t have the time for this conversation right now. When I say something is none of your business, you need to take me for my word and leave it at that.” He jumps out of my way as I move back towards the laboratory door. “Who changed the lock on this door?”

“I did,” he says nonchalantly.

“Why would you do that?”

“Hey, I just do what I’m told. That’s all I’m good for around here.” Humphries tries to brush some fresh snow from my shoulder, but I swat his hand away before he can touch me.

“Well, can you open it for me?”

“Do you mind me asking what it is that you’re looking for?”

“Just open the door Jerry.”

Humphries pauses for a moment, as though taking orders from me is below him. He unlocks the door and flicks the light switch. The overhead lights slowly illuminate the large room from one end to the other. The wooden frame is still here, a little more progress has been made on it. The piles of sawdust have gotten bigger, and the boxes seem to be stacked closer to the ceiling now. Tools and incomprehensible equipment are still scattered everywhere; stuff like metal cylinders, sealed canisters, coils and wires. But there’s no sign of Templeton Rate.

I can hear birds chirping from somewhere nearby. I think I hear the call of an Amazonian Antshrike (Thamnophilus amazonicus), but I’m not certain.

“Do you know where Templeton is?” I ask Humphries, but all I get for an answer are shrugged shoulders. “Do you know who’s been using this space?”

“Some student. Mitch…Mitchell. Mitchie, I think his name was. They’re all the same to me.”

“Who’s giving students access to this lab?”

“I am.”

“You? Why would you do that? These labs aren’t here to be the students’ personal storage lockers.”

Jerry Humphries looks around suspiciously and then leans in, a little too close for my liking. “Well, let’s just say that the two of us came to an agreement.” He rubs his index finger and middle finger against his thumb, hinting at some sort of financial arrangement.

I think I hear the musical chirps of a Resplendent Quetzal (Pharomachrus mocinno) from somewhere unknown.

I’m about to turn the lights back off, but then something else catches my eye. Inside the wooden box, there are some sheets of metal being laid across the walls. Within the reflective surface, I see something concealed in the corner of the room, hiding out of sight. It looks like something, or six giant fiberglass swan-shaped somethings covered with a tarp. Immediately, I think of the missing swan boats from the Lagoon, but I’m certain I don’t want to ask Jerry Humphries about it. I thumb the detective’s card in my pocket. Maybe I’ll call the police and let them know about this, but right now I’ve got far too much on my mind.

Deep inside me, I know that Humphries has to be aware of something more. “Do you know where Templeton is?” I ask him, accusingly.

“You already asked me that.” I guess I did, but my mind is totally scattered right now. “But if I see him,” Humphries starts, “I’ll let him know you’ve been snooping around here for him.”

“This is ridiculous,” I say, and shut the lights off and close the door behind us. “Listen. I can’t believe something like this could even begin to happen, but I want you to fix this situation Jerry. Find that kid. Get those keys from him. And get your head straight.”

“Does this mean you’ll be breaking up with your boyfriend?”

“If I can find him.”

“One can’t change sides once they’ve been placed by God, Bella” I hear him call out behind my back, ominously. I’m not sure what it is he means by it. I don’t want to ask him, and he doesn’t tell me either.

When I get back outside to my car, I brush off the snow that’s accumulated all morning. With the very first swipe I uncover the ‘PUFFIN’ on my hood. As I sit behind the wheel with the engine running and waiting for the heat to kick in, I begin to feel light-headed again. My head is pounding. The muscles on my right arm begin twitching. I watch my pronator teres as it pulsates beneath the skin. I realize that I haven’t had a single cup of coffee today, and I wonder just how much my body would notice if the vast amount that I’ve ingested over the last month suddenly dropped to zero.

I’m sweating now, so I turn the heater dial from red to blue and roll down my window. I leaning back, allowing the winter chill to envelop me once again, and I spot a pack of Templeton’s cigarettes wedged between the driver’s seat and the hand brake. I don’t know what’s come over me, if it’s the news about that poor girl’s murder or if it’s the realization that my relationship with Claude-What’s-His-Name will have lasted longer than my relationship with Templeton Rate, but I need something to calm myself down. I pick up the package and study it in my hand for a minute. I read the message on the front, straight from the desk of this mysterious Surgeon General:

WARNING: Smoking Causes Lung Cancer, Heart Disease,

Emphysema, and May Complicate Pregnancy.

It was just as I’d feared.

If the Surgeon General had been telling this story, the cover would have warnings all over it.

Popping the lid open, I smell the nicotine and recall my first feeble attempt at smoking a few nights ago in the Salem graveyard. I know that I can give it a better effort than that.

Pumping the cigarette lighter a few times, I acknowledge that this is probably the only feature of my car that’s never seen any use. Pulling it out of its warm dashboard nest, I hold it up to the cigarette in my mouth for a few seconds before the paper lights up. Instantly, I find truth in what I’ve heard smokers say when they talk about the calming affect a cigarette can have. The smoke seems to lick its way all over my insides: in my mouth, down my throat, through my arms, soothing my twitching muscles, and enveloping my brain.

In fact, I’m so calm that I’m totally oblivious to the sound of crunching snow underneath very familiar shoes. Templeton sticks his head into my car, and scares me a little with his discovery. “Well, well, well. If it isn’t the girl with no vices?” I jump back, and drop the hot metallic lighter into my lap. It burns on my leg, and I kick it to the floor quickly.

“Templeton?” I say, and I accidentally swallow the smoke in my mouth, almost choking. He doesn’t flinch at all. “What are you doing here?”

“Just wondering where you’re off to. Don’t you have another class this afternoon?”

“Don’t start getting on my case about proper attendance. Where were you this morning? Field Identification…do you remember that one?”

He reaches in and takes the cigarette from my hand. “These things will kill you, you know that?” He takes one long drag off of it before flicking it away over his shoulder. The cold air extinguishes the cigarette before it even touches the snow. “That Identification class of yours is bullshit, you know? None of that stuff is of any use to me. Or anyone else there, for that matter.”

He always does this. He always tries to get me riled up about something he knows I won’t be able to change his opinion on, whether he actually believes what he says or not. Templeton always wants to win. And he always does. But not this time. This time I won’t let him.

I shut the engine off and push the door open. Templeton has to jump back to avoid being hit. I step outside of my car defiantly. I haven’t yet rehearsed the words in my head, aside from thumbing through thoughts in my office thirty minutes ago. So I cut to the chase.

“Templeton…it’s not working.”

“Of course not. You took your keys out, dummy.”

“Not the car. Us. This relationship isn’t good. It’s not doing either of us any good.”

Templeton stares at me, unblinking with his hands in his coat pockets. He’s staring at me almost as though he could already see this coming. As though he knew it from the first moment: that moment on the bus, or the moment he sat beside me in The Strangest Feeling and we stared at each other’s reflections in the mirrored mini fridge. What I’m saying to him seems completely expected, like the moment the ball drops on the television and everybody in the room yells “Happy New Year!” Like the first fireworks shot into the sky on the Fourth of July. Like when the phone rings on your birthday and you know it’s your mother on the other end and the first thing she’ll say is “Happy Birthday, sweetheart.” Like any celebration that loses all of its exhilaration because nobody is the least bit surprised. Because they’ve anticipated it all year long, since it happened the last time.

I notice that Templeton is again wearing the shirt with the little brown-headed nuthatch on it. I wonder if it’s been washed since that first night a month ago.

“It’s over,” I say with finality.

And an uninterested “Uh huh,” is all I get from him.

“Is that all you’ve got to say to me?”

“Well, what do you want me to say? It sounds to me like you’ve already made whatever decision you think you need to make.”

I guess I have. It was inevitable though, wasn’t it? He wasn’t exactly taking this relationship seriously, was he? Was I?

“Does this mean you’ll be getting back together with Nickwelter?”

“Of course not.” Again, I try my best to not think about the newspaper, and the words written in bold across the front page. “I need to focus on what’s really important to me.”

“And that is?”

“My job. This whole school. I can’t afford to lose any of this.”

Templeton studies my response for a moment. I’m telling the truth, but I don’t think he’s completely buying what I have to say. Or maybe it’s just that he doesn’t care. If he ever had.

“Templeton please. This just isn’t working. I realize that now.”

“Is that what you really believe, Bella?”

“I’m sorry. Yes.” It’s me who’s apologizing, but I know it shouldn’t be. That’s how it always works with people. “Maybe I was hoping that something would be right between us; that this change would be good for me. But that was just wishful thinking. Just a moment of weakness on my part.”

Templeton keeps looking at me, knowing there’s more to this story than what I’m telling him. How does he always seem to know these things?

He walks around to the front of my car, and sits down on the hood. I expect him to reach into his coat and light up a cigarette, but he doesn’t. Instead, he shares another memory with me. “I used to go to church all the time when I was a boy. Every Sunday.”

“I didn’t know that,” is all I can say to him. And really, why should I know that? It’s not as though he’s shared much in the way of his past with me before now. Why does he always have to act like this? Why does he always have to be so puzzling in the moments that I need him to be straight with me? I think that I would ask him that right now, if I wasn’t trying so hard to simply put an end to everything.

If I hadn’t stayed in the parking lot, wanting to listen to him.

“One particular Sunday we left the church, my mother and sister and I. It was a morning just like any other morning. But it was not going to be the same as any before. It felt sort of…unusually usual, if that makes any sense to you. As soon as we’d walked back to the car I realized that I’d lost my chain. The holy cross my mother had given to me. The one I’d worn around my neck for as long as I could remember. So my mother suggested that I go back in and see if I could find it. She said something absurd like, “Jesus would leave it in plain sight for me.” I can’t believe how religion can bring out the most idiotic ideas, even in somewhat intelligent people.”

He hasn’t even made a point yet, but his story is already sending shivers down my spine. It’s already making me regret things that I have no right to be regretting.

If I hadn’t gone to Salem that night, wanting to be with him.

“I went back inside to look for it, but I didn’t find anything. That church floor had always seemed impossibly clean to me, as though God himself had personally cleaned it.” He stops for a moment, hanging onto his last words. “You see what I mean about religion making intelligent people say the most fucked up things?”

If I hadn’t made that phone call the night Claude went missing, so badly needing him.

“Anyway, I asked a few of the religious stragglers if they might have seen it. Some of the sheep that were still there marking themselves with the sign of the cross. But no one could help me. I went to the pew where we had sat for the morning service and I took one last look. There was a man sitting right where we had sat. I was too young to remember what he looked like, but I can recall what he said as I approached him. He said, “Hello Matthew.” I didn’t know what to say, but that man held it up in his hand. He had found my necklace for me. I reached out for it, but he pulled his hand back. He then went on to tell me things like there was no God. He told me there was no such thing as angels.” Templeton leans back on the palms of his hands. He turns his face to the sky. I watch his fingers as they dig into the hood of my car like talons. “He told me we were all wasting our time waiting for Jesus. He told me there was no truth to Heaven or Hell. And he told me that churches held no purpose other than to give ignorant and misguided people a false sense of hope.”

If I hadn’t sat outside on the curb that morning, waiting for him.

“And I told him that I’d heard of people like him before. People that wouldn’t ever believe in the things that I was taught to believe in. And that my mother told me I should never listen to the things these people would tell me. And I asked him who he was. He tossed the chain back to me and he told me that he was my father. But I didn’t believe him.”

If I hadn’t waited in the library that afternoon, wanting to help him.

“Do you know what I did then? I put that necklace in my pocket. Without another word, I turned around and left the church. When my mother asked me if I had found it, I told her that I didn’t. I told her that Jesus must not be such a helpful guy after all.”

If I hadn’t returned to The Strangest Feeling so many nights, wanting to see him again.

“I never wore that chain around my neck again. I think I tossed it in a ditch or something. I’m not sure. And I refused to go to church with my mother and sister from that day on. They couldn’t understand the things that I was now starting to believe, but it didn’t bother me.”

If only that night, exactly one month ago, hadn’t been my birthday.

“A few months later, my mother and sister died when our house burned to the ground.”

If I hadn’t been rejected from the Doneau High basketball team, none of this would have happened.

His story is sad, but there’s only one thing I can ask him. “Why did that man call you Matthew?”

“Because he was crazy. That was my point.”

“I didn’t know there was a point to that story.”

“Of course Bella. I realized then that people are only good for telling you what they believe in. They don’t care what you really want, or what the truth really is; they simply want to force their beliefs on you. To convert more sheep.”

“But you believed what that man told you, didn’t you? Isn’t that why you never went to church again?”

“No. I realized that my beliefs sat somewhere in the middle of what my mother preached to me, and what that stranger had said. But don’t condemn me for having different beliefs than you do Bella.”

The same words he spoke in the graveyard three nights ago.

Don’t think me any less intelligent than you,” he had said that night.

I can’t force you to wholly believe in the same things I believe,” he had said.

But I can make you accept it,” he had said.

From somewhere, I think I hear the unmistakable wooden ‘bonk’ of the male Three-Wattled Bellbird (Procnias tricarunculata).

“I think I’d better get going,” I say to him. I don’t know why it hurts so much, but it does. How can it be wrong for me to do what my heart is urging me to do? I climb back inside my car and close the door. As it slams shut, it seems to force more tears out of my eyes. I want to throw up again, but this time for completely different reasons. Templeton is outside my windshield, still sitting on the hood of my car.

I turn the key. The engine fails to start.

Templeton stands up and turns around. There’s a look in his eyes that tells me he knows far more than I thought he did. And that all of this is far from being over.

From wherever comes the distinctive call of a Sulawesi Thrush (Cataponera turdoides).

I turn the key again, and I don’t let go of it until the engine roars back to life. I shift the car into drive.

“Everyone will believe in something different, Isabella,” he says, almost as a warning. “And if you’re lucky enough, some of them will believe anything that you tell them.”

He steps out of my way, and he lets me leave him. With the window still rolled down, I can hear his words as I pass by. But he’s through with his preacher’s warnings, and he’s moved along to simply being cryptic. “That’s why Nickwelter killed that girl.”

I don’t get the connection, but I’m also trying my best not to make one.

I don’t know how he knows the things he thinks he does, but I tell myself it doesn’t matter anymore.

I keep driving. I look into the rearview mirror, and he’s standing there in the patch of rectangle where my car was just parked. It’s the only empty spot I see. Even the crows have moved on. Templeton Rate is the only sign of life that I leave behind in the snow-covered parking lot.

If I had stopped telling this story, now would probably be a good time.

NEXT CHAPTER

Molt – Chapter Fourteen

The Weeping Angel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blue checkmark.

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

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

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

“Says you.”

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

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

HIM: “That’s right.”

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

HIM: “I’m nothing.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So what?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The plaque on the stone block reads:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How long have you smoked anyway?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh yeah? What was his name?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Too soon?”

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

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

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

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

“People like me you mean?”

“It’s everyone, Bella.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I already told you.”

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

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

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

“Really. Unlike me, right?”

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

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

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

“So you believe in angels?”

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

“Really? Are you serious?”

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

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

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

“Right.”

“Not yet. You?”

“No. But I don’t believe in angels.”

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

“At least I made a choice.”

“Do you know what an angel is?”

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

“I have no idea,” I say.

“What’s their purpose?”

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

“I don’t know.”

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

“I don’t,” I tell him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I roll my eyes in total agreement.

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

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

“I had it in your trunk.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I don’t think so.”

Shit-For-Brains?

“No.”

“How about Cunt Flap?

“Templeton, please.”

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

“My last words?”

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

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

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

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

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

NEXT CHAPTER

Molt – Chapter Twelve

The Molt

MONDAY, OCTOBER TWENTY-SEVENTH. I leave some food in Claude’s dish before I go. I grab my bag and exit out onto Newbury Street. It’s a sunny morning, but the freezing cold of October has definitely set in. There hasn’t been any sign of snow in Boston since that first day two weeks ago. There’s no trace at all of the snow that had blanketed the city that one day, but the events that unfolded on that same afternoon are still extraordinarily frozen solid in my memory.

My daily migration has begun. As I leave my apartment, I can’t help but notice the wedding dresses in the window of the shop to my right. It’s no surprise though; I notice them every morning. These dresses used to make me feel lost, as though they were representing something much too far out of my reach. I thought that the portraits behind the glass were all frauds; the false brides and grooms were laughing at me from some made-up fantasy world. Of course, I’d always felt that they still had more than I did. Until Templeton came along that is.

I dodge a couple of yuppie moms pushing over-sized baby carriages and I find the same feelings of pre-Templeton loneliness racing through my head all over again. But just the thought of him helps me to smile again.

The popular orange Boston Duck Tours bus motors slowly along Newbury Street; its cartoon duck painted on the side splashing in a puddle, and its passengers inside pressed against the windows with cameras ready. The duck reminds me of the fact that drakes are among the few birds with a penis. The male organ of the Argentine Lake Duck (Oxyura vittata), a bird that only weighs about a pound, is a corkscrew-like appendage that becomes a foot long when fully erect. The female has a long corkscrew vagina, spiraling in the opposite direction. This bird is a riotously promiscuous species, and the drake’s extraordinary organ has evolved in such a way to displace the sperm of the female’s earlier mates. This cartoon duck reminds me that Templeton and I have made love a dozen times in the last two-and-a-half weeks. The feeling is exhilarating, when I think about how lucky I am to have him.

I smile for the flashing cameras, whether I’m the intended subject for their photos or not.

If these tourists had been telling this story, they would assume I’ve always been this happy.

To my left is the Starbucks, and I go inside to grab my morning coffee. Most of the staff knows me by name now, but none of them look the least bit familiar to me. Much like students, baristas are simply baristas. On the counter, I spot a birthday card standing upright, and I can read what’s been written inside:

To Sarah, Happy birthday! Hope you like the bracelet, please wear it.

I note the lack of haiku in the greeting. Once I reach the front counter, the barista greets me with a good morning. Her nametag says ‘Sarah,’ and I notice the absence of a bracelet around her wrist. I can’t help it, but I instantly do not wish to deal with this person. I let the man behind me go ahead while I wait for the next register over to open up. I’ve been in a good mood for over two weeks now, and I don’t need it spoiled by someone so ungrateful.

With a grandé Guatemala Magdalena in hand (an elegant and intriguing blend of gentle spice flavors), I head around to the back of the building where my car is parked. I can see Claude in the third-story window, watching me from his cage. “Bye-bye Bella,” he calls out through the partially open window.

I almost respond, but stop myself before I do. He’s looking directly at me, but there’s something that seems off in both his motions and emotions. I don’t know, it’s almost as if his head is leaning a little too far to one side. I know Claude well enough to pick up on the subtleties. I wonder if he ever longs to fly, like all of the other birds he can see out that window. Sometimes I catch him staring at the Rock Pigeons (Columba livia) perched on the telephone wires across from him. Sometimes the pigeons are chased off and replaced by American Crows (Corvus brachyrhynchos). All of those birds with two wings that can simply come and go as they please. I don’t believe the thought has ever crossed my mind before now, but it seems like it would be an obvious assumption; does Claude have the ability to yearn?

I open the car door and toss my bag in before responding, “Bye-bye Claude.” I get in and I drive out of Public Alley 434, trying my best to not worry about him any longer.

I haven’t been back to Templeton’s apartment since that first awkward morning, but he’s spent the night at my place a few times since then. He had seemed very interested in Claude, but I felt as though it was forced; as though he understood how important Claude was to me, and he felt he had to act accordingly. I’ve only really known Templeton for a short time now, but I already know that’s not in his character.

He wouldn’t display false emotion.

He wears his heart on his sleeve.

Templeton Rate doesn’t pretend to be someone he’s not.

At the intersection of Exeter and Newbury Street, I sit in the shadow of the John Hancock Tower to my left. The Tower makes me uncomfortable, and it always has. I think that it’s all of the reflections off its sheer glass façade that make me dizzy. To my right, I can see the fifty-two floors of the Prudential Tower, and I think back to my conversation with Templeton when I told him my dreams of flying. I get lost for a moment as I see a pair of Ring-Billed Gulls (Larus delawarensis) take off from the rooftop and hover for a moment in the air before they flap their wings and disappear from sight behind another building. I just know they were sitting there, waiting for me.

Because that’s the moment that I’m most jealous of.

I’m still dreaming as the car behind me honks its horn.

I make a right turn onto the busy Huntington Avenue, and fight with the rest of the Monday morning commuters. From there, it’s a right onto Parker Street and then a couple of short turns more before I’m once again parked in my own reserved spot within the Hawthorne University staff parking lot.

In terms of migratory routes, it’s a pretty short distance; fifteen minutes to work in the morning, and usually ten minutes to get home in the evening, traffic permitting. Although, where birds will make their migratory trips only a couple of times a year over large distances of thousands of miles (the longest of which is the Sooty Shearwater (Puffinus griseus), which makes an annual round-trip of roughly forty-thousand miles), my migration happens daily, nearly every day of the year. Still, sometimes I wonder who’s got it tougher: me or the sooty shearwater.

I pull into the parking lot, upset that my coffee is already lukewarm. But when everyday follows the same routine, it’s always going to be lukewarm. Thankfully though, my life has felt much less nauseatingly monotonous since Templeton Rate along.

I guess you could say Templeton and I have been dating for the last two weeks. As odd as our pairing might seem, I still can’t put my finger on what it is that makes me feel the way I do about him. Maybe it’s something akin to a pheromone-type of effect. I don’t consider myself to know much about the details of pheromone attraction. Although rampant in the animal kingdom, pheromones are mostly non-existent in birds, since in general, birds have a very poor olfactory sense. Corkscrew penises aside, their mating is done primarily through song and dance.

The only conclusions I’ve drawn so far, is that I’ve found some absurd emotional connection to Templeton’s smoldering dark brown eyes, that fantastic mop of hair and the cigarette breath; they’re the very same traits that Claude had. But Templeton is not the same person Claude was. He’s not about the happy birthdays or the scheduled make-outs. He makes me feel special. He makes me a better person. He encourages me to embrace change rather than resist it.

If he hadn’t made me feel special.

Templeton is not Professor Nickwelter; he’s not trying to keep our relationship hidden and he doesn’t buy me wristwatches and other such frivolities in order to keep me interested. He’s not about the charitable birthday dinners or secret rendezvous. I feel at ease around him. I no longer have to look for comfort in the images of birds. He sees things around him, and he sees things in me, that even some birds with their incredible visual acuity would have trouble spotting. There’s a reason he found me on the bus that night and it’s the very same reason I need him in my life.

If he hadn’t found me on the bus that night.

Templeton’s academic advancements are also amazing. He’s a natural genius, and the vast amount that he’s learned in such little time makes me proud to have him as a student in my classes. His current papers are a vast improvement over the original report that had appeared mysteriously on my desk just weeks ago. Whether he’s written about wing and skeletal structure, flight function, muscle growth or the respiratory system, they’ve all been meticulously detailed, and they’ve all received Professor Donhelle’s familiar blue checkmarks. His work had been nothing short of flawless and immaculate. His understandings seem far beyond any other student that has ever sat in my class. I have yet to question him about those first random scribblings he’d given me, though I’ve convinced myself that those reports were merely terrible on purpose. Surely the intimate knowledge that he’s recently shown suggests that Templeton Rate has a well-educated background. There’s no possibility that a comprehensive familiarity such as his could be faked.

He’s certainly not the man I had originally assumed him to be. His decision to switch from sticks of charcoal to ballpoint pens is almost evidence enough.

I lock my car and head for the ornithology department faculty entrance. I envision Templeton at the door smoking a cigarette as he waits for me. But instead, all I get is Jerry Humphries. His ugly brown car is parked in front of the entrance, its trunk open wide and one of the rear wheels up over the curb, buried in the grass. It looks like there’s another shipment arriving that I was unaware of. I think for a moment about talking to whoever’s in charge of scheduling, but then it occurs to me that it’s actually Humphries himself. While he should have notified me in the first place, I’ll gladly avoid making an issue out of it if that means not having to speak to the dirty little man face to face. But unfortunately, there’ll be no avoiding him this morning.

“Good morning Bella. How was your weekend?” He’s wearing his famous weathered brown leather trench coat, and fumbling with a large cardboard box, sloppily sealed with an over-abundance of orange electrical tape. His fingers are gnarled; the nails chomped down to the cuticles. His face is all patches of hair, some thick and some thin. Nose hairs spring forth in every direction. And his head is a really odd shape; like a rejected potato at the supermarket that you’ll always find lingering on its own in the bottom of the bin after all the others have been taken. The one that will eventually get thrown out because it’s been sitting by itself for far too long.

If Jerry Humphries had been telling this story, I’m certain it wouldn’t find a very wide audience.

I hear his wretched morning greeting, and I wish I could slug him in the stomach. Could I do it? Would it really be so bad to just hit someone I dislike so intensely? It certainly wouldn’t be something I’d ever thought of doing two weeks ago. I hear Templeton’s voice in my head insisting that I embrace change.

I can change, can’t I?

“My weekend was fine Jerry.” Maybe I’ll hit him tomorrow. “And you?”

“Great! Went up to Portsmouth. Did some hunting. I’ve got enough meat for a month now! You know, you should really come with me one of these weekends.”

“I really don’t think so. Hunting’s not exactly my thing.” I hope that will be enough to end the conversation, but I know it won’t be.

“How about church then? Why don’t you come along with me next Sunday?”

For reasons unknown, Humphries has asked me to come to church with him a number of times. It surprises me that someone so vile can actually be putting his faith in something. A glimmer of light from the rearview mirror’s dangling bent cross catches my eye. It doesn’t surprise him at all when I decline his offer yet again. “I didn’t know hunting in Portsmouth was legal?” I ask him. I hope it’s enough to soon find an end to our conversation, since I feel sick to my stomach just continuing this exchange.

“Well, it’s like anything; you’ve just gotta know where to look for it.” He is such a creep.

But then, like divine intervention, Templeton comes out through the doors. He seems to walk outside with a purpose, and is a little surprised when he sees me. I’m not sure why exactly, as I show up at the same time every morning. Punctual like the Common Cuckoo (Cuculus canorus), striking every hour on the cuckoo clock.

“Greetings, Professor Donhelle,” he says.

Humphries thinks he’s doing kindly favor by introducing us; “Bella, you know Templeton Rate, don’t you? He’s a student here.” But I know there’s nothing kind about the rat. “Templeton was just helping me unload some of these boxes.”

“Oh, we’re quite familiar, Templeton says. “Isn’t that right, Isabella?”

I don’t correct him anymore when he calls me Isabella. I’m not sure what he’s expecting me to say in response, but I show him a sign of approbation. “Well, that’s very nice of you Templeton. I’m sure Mr. Humphries appreciates the helping hand.” As though I was his mother and he was five years old and helping unload the groceries.

“I just like to do my part.” He turns back to Humphries, who’s eyeballing us as though sensing that something else might be going on between Templeton and I. But Jerry Humphries has never picked up on subtleties very easily. “Is this the last one then?” Templeton asks him.

“That’s right.” Humphries hands him the box. I hear something rattling around inside. It sounds like nails and broken glass.

“What have you got here anyway?” I ask Humphries. “I hope there aren’t any birds taped up in these boxes.” I might sound as though I’m joking casually, but I really just want to make sure.

Humphries closes the trunk of his car, and his Jesus fish falls off, clattering off the curb and onto the pavement. “Just some lab equipment. You know, stuff of that ilk.”

Templeton has already gone back inside the school with the last box. I decide it would be best to follow him immediately, and not leave any parting words for Humphries. So when Humphries turns away and bends down to pick up his metal fish, I use that precise moment to exit, without another word.

I didn’t expect Templeton to hold the door open for me; I would never mistake him for being such a gentleman. But at the very least, I thought he would have waited long enough for me to catch up. I have to run after him through the faculty halls, careful not to spill my coffee on the way. “Whatever made you help Humphries with these boxes anyway?”

“I was just walking by and he asked for my help. That’s all.” He doesn’t stop walking, and I’m at his heels following along behind him. “I get the feeling you don’t like that guy very much,” he calls back to me.

“That’s an understatement.”

“You didn’t fuck him too, did you?”

I stop in my tracks. “Jerry Humphries? Templeton, please! That man is disgusting.”

Templeton stops now too, and he turns back to face me. “Well, you already slept with Nickwelter. How am I supposed to know?”

“I had a life before you came along Templeton.”

“Really?”

“Well, what do you think?”

“I think you had an affair with one of your professors and your only other relationship has been with a one-armed bird. You can’t be satisfied with just coming to this school every damn day and teaching these morons the same inane bullshit semester after semester after semester, can you? Don’t you want anything more than that? Don’t you want to leave something important behind you when you’re dead and gone?”

He looks at me, holding the box in his arms and waiting for some kind of response. I keep any answers from him though, and stand in awe of the things he’s just said. What’s come over him? And why is he talking about my demise so soon into our relationship?

Templeton’s arms slouch down, realizing he’s over-stepped his boundaries. “I’m sorry,” he says to me for the first time ever. The contents of the box seem to apologize too, rolling in unison to one end. “I don’t know what makes me fly off the handle like that sometimes.”

“It’s okay,” I tell him. As hard as it is to hear it said, I think it’s harder to actually admit to myself that his words are mostly true. “Maybe you just need some coffee. I find it helps to calm my nerves.”

He sets the box down on the linoleum floor of the hall, right outside the south laboratory. “I think I just have a hard time believing you slept with that guy, is all.”

“I shouldn’t have told you the details about my past relationship in the first place,” I say to him. “It’s just that…well, we all have things we’ve done in the past that we later regret, don’t we? It’s hard to simply wipe the slate clean.”

“It’s called change Bella. It’s what we all do. And it’s inevitable, so you’d better get used to it.” Templeton has a way of really making me think about every last word he says. Then he usually follows it up by changing the subject. “But don’t dwell on it right now, okay? Let me walk you to your office.”

I agree, and I think about his one-armed bird comment from a minute ago. “I hope you know birds have wings, and not arms, right?”

Templeton smirks. Had he set himself up to be proven wrong on purpose? He looks down at the box on the floor, and suggests leaving it there for Humphries to deal with. Taking the coffee from my hand, he gulps some down and squirms a little. I thought that by now he’d be used to how much sugar I like. “You know, the only reason I was even helping that guy with his boxes in the first place was because I was waiting for you to show up this morning.”

“What? Really?”

“Really.”

“You were just waiting right there at the door?”

“It’s true.”

So far, my relationship with Templeton has not been much more than sex and homework, so it’s satisfying to engage in what feels like an ordinary boyfriend-girlfriend squabble. He was right when he said it though; the only real relationships I’ve had so far in my life have been my affair with Professor Nickwelter and the feeding of my invalid parrot. I’m just glad I never mentioned the sad tale of kissing Claude in high school to Templeton. Admittedly, that’s not much to show for in the last twenty-nine years, but would my life really have been so different if Mrs. Wyatt had not made that heartless decision?

If I hadn’t been rejected from the Doneau High basketball team.

I was still lost in Templeton’s eyes when Professor Nickwelter came around the corner. As usual, he wins the contest for the worst possible timing. He stops in his tracks, no doubt in stupefied wonder as to what Isabelle Donhelle was doing longing after this student of hers while she had just put the moves on Nickwelter in the back of his car only a couple of weeks ago. He fidgets, adjusting his collar nervously, unsure of his next move.

Templeton turns to see where my eyes are fixed. He and Nickwelter stare each other down for a moment. I visualize a California Condor (Gymnogyps californianus) and a Golden Eagle (Aquila chrysaetos) challenging one another over who gets dibs on a mountain goat carcass. Of course, I imagine Templeton as the golden eagle, but I’m now rethinking my role as the mountain goat carcass in this scenario.

Before any such bloodbath can occur however, I break the silence by accidentally dropping my coffee on the floor. At least I think it was an accident. “Oh! Good morning Professor Nickwelter.”

I can tell he doesn’t know what he could possibly say to me right now that would make things any less awkward. “Good morning Isabelle.” My only hope is that he’s at least thinking of his wife. “Do you think I could speak with you at some point today? I have some important matters to discuss.”

“Of course Professor,” I say, making sure I’m not getting any coffee on my shoes. “I’ll come see you when I have a moment.”

Nickwelter takes one last glance towards Templeton, eyeing him up for just the briefest of moments, before turning back to me. “Very good. Thank you.” Then he turns and walks away. It’s a sad exit, one that leaves a hurtful, burning sensation in my heart.

Nickwelter disappears from sight, and I look down at the mess of coffee on the floor. The plastic lid had popped off upon impact, and the creamy brown liquid slowly spreads out before me. I see my reflection, as well as the reflection of the ceiling lights above me. Templeton’s dark silhouette is in there too. Like staring up at clouds in an effort find imaginative shapes, the coffee seems to take on an entirely new form; it begins to resemble a dense flock of birds. Flying across the cold hall floor, migrating towards Templeton Rate.

It reminds me of a birding expedition I was on a few years ago. We were in the marshes of some backwater Massachusetts town, studying the habits of the American Bittern (Botaurus lentiginosus). The sun was just rising, creating a beautiful orange and pink pastel sky. From across the marsh came the sudden and explosive sound of a gunshot, probably from duck hunters who were up even earlier than we had been. The sound of the shot seemed louder than the booming cry of the bitterns, which flew off immediately. What I remember the most was the sight of the siege of bitterns; the idyllic sky had been overcome by this murky outline of the birds. They had lost all individual shape, and became one single black sheet against the sunrise. It was, and still is, surprising to me how these birds could possibly find the room to flap their own wings in and amongst one another.

Templeton’s own recent report on the very same bitterns I had once studied was impeccably thorough and insightful, from detailing its distinctive bellowing call to the bird’s extraordinarily instinctive ability to camouflage itself amongst marsh reeds.

I look up from the floor to Templeton, who seems to have been watching me closely the whole time. “I can’t believe you fucked that guy,” he reiterates with wonder. As intelligent as he is, sometimes he’s still in need of help when it comes to social interaction.

“I’d better let the janitor know about this mess,” I say.

“Don’t worry about it,” he tells me. “I’ll get Humphries to clean this up.” Templeton has a knack for always finding the best possible solution. I don’t want to know how that request might be initiated, so I don’t ask.

Templeton convinces me that I need to get my things together in order to prepare for class this morning. I ask if I’ll see him again before the day is through, but he says that he doesn’t have class today. He’s got a shift at the hotel, as well as some personal errands to attend to. He tells me he’ll be by later, and maybe we can meet up for lunch.

“That’s fine,” I say as I turn around to leave.

“Hold on Bella. Can I ask you something?”

I can’t help it, but memories of The Question instantly take over any thoughts I already had inside my head. “Of course. What is it?”

“What are you doing for Halloween?”

“I…I’m not sure. I don’t usually do anything for Halloween other than throw candy out my window to kids in the alley. Except for the mini Three Musketeers. I keep all of those for myself.”

He stares at me with a blank look in his eyes.

“What?” I ask.

“I’m sorry,” he says again for the second time now. “That’s pretty pathetic.”

“Well, I’m not going to sit at the front door all night and get depressed when no kids come by.” Which is exactly what I did my first three Halloweens in Boston. “Why do you ask? Do you have something better on your mind?”

“I usually go up to Salem for the Haunted Happenings festival. I was wondering if I could borrow your car.”

That certainly wasn’t where I thought this conversation was headed. “Did I hear you right? You want to borrow my car?”

“That’s right.” He looks at me with another blank expression, this time wondering why this wasn’t what I had expected to hear. “Did I say something wrong?”

I reiterate, and speak slowly, hoping that he’ll be able to understand what I’m trying to get at. “You want to borrow my car so you can go to Salem for Halloween?”

“That’s correct.”

“By yourself?”

“It’s what I do every year.”

“And you didn’t think of asking me to come with you?” Could I possibly ever date someone that isn’t either twice my age or half my IQ?

“I’m sorry,” he says again. “I suppose I’m still getting used to this whole situation.”

“Situation? You mean our relationship?”

“Let me start over. Would you like to come with me to Salem for Halloween?”

“Thanks for the invite. But Salem? For Halloween? Isn’t that a little too…much?”

“Are you coming or not? You can bring your parrot and your Three Musketeers with you if you want, but I’m not going to ask a second time.”

“Do I need a costume?”

“Have you ever celebrated Halloween before?”

“To be honest, it’s never been one of my favorite holidays. I don’t think I get it.”

“It’s kids dressing up as things they’re scared of and it’s complete strangers giving them candy. What’s not to get?”

The strangers with candy is the part that my parents tried to keep far away from me when I was growing up. It didn’t make any sense to me then, but I can see their point now.

“I know what really scares you about Halloween,” he says. “It’s the costumes, isn’t it?”

“Costumes don’t scare me.”

“No, I know. But it’s the change they represent.”

He was right, wasn’t he? It always comes down to my fear of change.

If I hadn’t run through the hedge at Saint Francis Elementary.

“Can’t I just be myself?” I ask.

“If you’re coming with me, you’ll need a costume.”

“All right,” I decide. “I’ll come. But the whole idea really creeps me out, you know? Salem seems like the scariest place you could go on Halloween.”

“That’s the point, isn’t it?” He turns around to leave me without so much as a kiss or even one of his infamously unromantic high-fives. “I’ll see you later then.”

I look back down at the coffee on the floor which now seems to be taking on a much more sinister shape. I convince myself that it’s just my mind playing tricks on me. The puddle creeps to the edge of the box, and quickly begins turning the cardboard a dark, wet color. I decide I’d better move the box myself before anything of value is ruined. The south lab is sure to have some paper towels, and I decide to clean up the entire mess myself rather than trust someone else to do it. I unlock the door and flick the lights on.

The overhead lights come on, one by one. They illuminate the front of the laboratory all the way to the back. The center of the room has been cleared out, and there are boxes and crates piled up along the walls and on top of the tables. There are some unidentifiable bits and pieces of equipment strewn about, but I don’t see much else of interest. Until I spot the wooden planks at the back of the room, that is. Some strange framework of boards is being constructed.

It’s probably been six months since I’ve stepped foot in the south laboratory, but this is certainly not how I remember it being maintained. It seems larger than I recall, but it’s most likely just the empty space playing a trick on me. I’m beginning to question the extent of the fire in here that closed the school down for one weekend a month ago.

The back of the room smells like a lumberyard. This wooden frame must be as tall as it wide; I’d say fifteen to twenty feet, almost a perfect cube. Tools and wooden boards are scattered around the floor. There’s a table saw surrounded by mounds of sawdust that nobody seemed concerned about sweeping up. My mother would have a heart attack.

I don’t find any paper towels anywhere, so I pick up the box from the hallway, and add it to the mountainous pile forming on the lab’s tables. Something is going on in here that I wasn’t told about. I’ll question Humphries about it later.

On my way out of the room though, I spot a single feather blowing around in the corner of the lab. It reflects the lights from above, giving it a kind of glow. There’s an air vent on the wall that has caught the feather in a gentle, spinning pattern. It seems so lonely, as though it’s lost its way. With the south lab’s close proximity to the school’s bird sanctuary, it’s not uncommon for feathers to find their way around these parts, but this one has caught my unyielding attention. At first, it doesn’t appear overly special, but I still feel compelled to investigate. I take the feather into my hand; it’s soft like an ordinary down feather, but when I rub it between my fingers, the tip disintegrates into a dusty powder, indicating it must be a pulviplume. Between its size and the chestnut coloration, I believe it must have come from a Goliath Heron (Ardea goliath). Herons don’t have the common preen glands from which most birds obtain oil to condition and waterproof their feathers. Pulviplumes such as this have evolved in certain birds like the heron to create this cleansing powder, and they will comb it through their feathers with their toes. But goliath herons are only found in Africa and parts of Asia, and we don’t have any in the bird sanctuary that I’m aware of. I let the feather float back to the floor and as I do, I hear its croaking call: muffled, as if coming from somewhere in my mind. I dismiss it, assuming I’m mistaken, since I have to get going to my first class this morning.

It’s a few hours later now and I still haven’t seen any further sign of Templeton today. I’m sitting in my office alone, eating my terribly simple tuna sandwich. Every day, and with every bite, I feel more and more like the endangered Hawaiian Shearwater (Puffinus newwlli), living on a steady diet of tuna. The ironic part is that the shearwater will travel in flocks when they hunt for their lunch, while I eat dreadfully alone in my office. Somehow at this moment I feel more endangered than the Hawaiian shearwater, if that’s at all possible.

When I arrived at my office this morning there was another ‘MOM’ note from Steffen James taped to my door, no doubt torn once again from Jerry Humphries’ notepad. I’d never called my mother back three weeks ago. Now the note is staring at me from my desktop, reminding me that I’m not quite the thoughtful daughter she wished she’d raised. Why on Earth would she call me at the school again when I was home alone last night?

There’s something within Steffen’s handwriting that reminds me of the self-inflicted mess I’d made of myself in the university library two weeks ago. Some of the staff has no doubt heard all about it; there’s an awkward quality to Steffen’s M’s that seems to want to avoid bringing up the subject with me. I would think that he’d know me better by now, and that there’s no stinking chance I would want to be discussing my sexual exploits with anyone I see on a regular basis.

I consider heading down to Professor Nickwelter’s office as I’d promised earlier, but then thoughts begin to race through my head. I start to wonder what it was that was on Nickwelter’s mind earlier this morning. I wonder what we might discuss should I sit down across from him. I imagine he’s probably heard about the library fiasco as well. I imagine him belittling me. I can hear him mocking me. I can see his eyes tearing up and I wonder how this man can say these things to me when it’s so obvious he actually cares so much for me still. Is this how I deserve to be treated? Even if it’s only in my imagination?

I used to worry about the kinds of things that people thought of me, especially when I was questioning my own actions. Did Cindey Fellowes ever wish that it was her kissing Claude instead of me? Did Antonia ever think that I’d abandoned her when I left Ville Constance? I thought that once I was older I would stop caring about whether others judged me or not, but isn’t this when it really matters? When I’m a professional adult with a respectable career?

Am I second-guessing my relationship with Templeton Rate? Am I making a mistake or just being foolish? Maybe I shouldn’t let him try to change me. Then again, maybe I’m not wrong about anything; maybe I’m reading too much into everything. Maybe there was nothing ominous about the way Claude was holding his head this morning. Maybe Nickwelter just wanted to ask me if I could switch a class with him. Maybe Templeton just really enjoys Halloween. Perhaps nobody really thinks too much about me or whether I’m happy or not. Maybe nobody cares the slightest bit about what happens to Isabelle Donhelle.

Is that worse, I wonder?

I crumple the second half of my sandwich inside the note, and toss the whole thing into the trash.

I don’t want to talk to Professor Nickwelter today, so I don’t. I don’t want to give my mother a call back yet, so I won’t. I didn’t plan on going home early today, but I do anyway. I try to occupy my mind with thoughts of what I’ll wear when I accompany Templeton to Salem on Halloween night.

Sadly, I can’t help but worry about what he’ll think of my decision.

I’m not in the habit of checking my answering machine the moment I get in, since it’s never blinking anyway. The first thing I do when I come home from work is say hello to Claude. Ever since my apartment was broken into, I can’t help but say hi to him as I open the door, before he can see me; I don’t want him to ever think there might be another stranger in our home. He always answers me back. Today he doesn’t.

From my coat closet, I step into the kitchen. I scoop out a third of a cup of mix to bring to Claude. That is what I do every day, and this is exactly what I do today.

But when I walk into my living room, I am shocked to find that there is no bird to feed! My heart stops beating. Claude’s cage is empty! The metal latch on the cage door is broken, and lays on the floor in two pieces. The window is open, just as I had left it this morning. Just as I always leave it.

I have to catch my breath. I don’t want to fear the worst, as there’s no way Claude could fly out the window on one wing, and so I search the apartment. I keep cool. I stay rational. It’s possible that Claude could have snapped the metal latch with his powerful beak. It’s possible that the cold weather made the latch that much more brittle. Anything is possible, but the fact remains that he’s not here anywhere.

With my head out the window, I search the back alley. Nothing. My car is the only vehicle behind the building. In my mind, Claude breaks the latch in two with his beak, and he hops onto the window ledge. Maybe birds do dream. Maybe he has yearned to fly with the other birds. Maybe Claude has even greater aspirations than I do. I wouldn’t be surprised. I envision him recollecting the last jump he ever took, the one that would eventually lead to the amputation of his left wing. All he wants is that life of his back again. He never asked for this change in the first place; he never wanted it. And he jumps off the window ledge. Is he trying to remember how his old life used to be? Or is he trying to put an end to it all? What would it matter though, since the only resolution would be his poor body crushing against the pavement behind the Starbucks in Public Alley 434. Exactly where my car is parked now.

Was he still lying there when I pulled in five minutes ago, completely oblivious?

I dart out of my apartment. I run down the three flights of stairs and out the back door into the alley. I gather the courage to look under my car.

Nothing.

I look in the gutter. I look in and around the dumpsters.

Still nothing. Claude is nowhere to be found.

I look back up at my open window and I wonder how this could have happened. It just doesn’t make any sense. I thought that out of everything in my life Claude would be the one that loved me the most. He wasn’t just biding his time, waiting to leave me, was he?

I look up to the telephone wires and see the same rock pigeons that were there when I left this morning. Maybe they know exactly what happened. The only witnesses to this crime.

When I start to think that Claude might be gone forever, tears well up inside of me. I don’t want to cry outside where passing vagrants can witness my embarrassing breakdown as they dig through dumpsters. I don’t want them, of all people, feeling sorry for me. I can smell the bags of coffee grinds piled high in the trash, and the aroma helps me to regain my senses.

When I get back inside my apartment, I still don’t cry; I take one last look for Claude instead.

Still nothing.

And still no tears.

Should I call Templeton? Is that the next logical step? This is what he’s supposed to be in my life for, isn’t it? I never did get too much in the way of comfort from Professor Nickwelter, and lord knows that the infamous Claude of Doneau High was certainly not an expert in the fine art of compassion, but maybe Templeton can be what I need.

He had given me the number for his cell phone, but so far I’ve resisted the use of it. I didn’t want to seem too needy too early in this new relationship. I pick up my phone and dial, except it doesn’t ring.

I hang up and try again, but I soon realize that there’s no dial tone. I check the cable to find it’s been unplugged. I can’t recall the last time that I had used my phone, or the last time I’d heard it ring. The answering machine is unplugged too. I think of the note from Steffen James, and how my mother has been waiting three weeks for me to return her phone call.

If only I’d called my mother back.

With the phone plugged back into the wall I give Templeton’s number another try, but all I get is his voice mail:

“You’ve reached Templeton Rate. This had better be good.”

I leave a frazzled message, urging him to call me back. I tell him that Claude is missing, and I suggest that maybe he could come by my place as soon as he’s free. I hope I don’t sound too desperate.

I wonder how my phone ever became unplugged in the first place. But I brush it off, since I’m more concerned with the fact that Claude is still gone, and that I’m still not crying about it.

His cage is so empty. The metal door still hangs open, swaying a little back and forth. There’s a slight breeze coming in through the window, but the air is freezing cold. It’s colder in here without Claude. After one last look out into the alley, I close the window, and I lay down on my bed.

The phone doesn’t ring all evening. And there are still no tears.

It’s dark when I wake up. I’m in a haze, but I’m certain I hear a rapping on my window. I sit up to listen closely, but the sound has stopped. Immediately, I remember everything that had happened since I’d come home from work. The memories are soon interrupted when I hear it again. Is it Claude outside? Or is somebody trying to break in again? Well go ahead already, there’s nothing left here that could be taken from me that I would miss.

Cautiously, I move off the bed and peek around the corner into my living room. A cold sweat comes over me as I see a shadowy figure outside on my fire escape. I duck back around the corner and I’m frozen in fear. If this person outside my window saw me, I have no idea.

As scared as I am, I still can’t muster any tears.

There’s another knock on the window, followed by a muffled voice. “Isabella? I know you’re in there. I can see you hiding around the corner, dummy.”

It’s Templeton’s voice for sure; no one else would constantly mispronounce my name like he does. But why is he going out of his way to scare the beef out of me? I take a cautious look around the corner; he’s crouched over, peering into my nest.

“Come on, open the window. It’s fucking freezing out here.”

With legs shaking, I slowly wobble towards him. I’m right beside the silent birdcage.

“What are you doing here?” I ask, sliding the window open.

“Uh, you called me remember? Something about a missing bird, I believe.” he climbs inside my living room and thoughtlessly rattles the empty cage beside him. “Is it this one?”

“His name is Claude.” I slap his hand off of the cage. “And I’m really worried, so be nice to me, okay?”

Ignoring the request, Templeton looks into the cage. It’s demeaning to think that he’s searching inside because he assumes I may have missed something. “Claude’s kind of a silly name for bird, don’t you think? Macaws aren’t even French.”

“I said be nice Templeton. He’s missing. Claude is gone, and I don’t know if he jumped out that window and killed himself, or if he’s still alive somewhere and suffering. I feel horrible. I’m sick to my stomach with worry, and you don’t even care.”

He dusts some snow off his coat, and shakes his wet hair like a dog. Then he puts a hand on my shoulder in an attempt at compassion. “Hey, I’m here aren’t I?”

“And then you scare me by coming through my window in the middle of the night? How did you even get up on the fire escape anyway?”

“There’s a pipe. I just shimmied up the pipe, and grabbed on. You don’t exactly have the best security system back there, you know?”

Still without any tears, I collapse into Templeton, and he wraps his arms around me. I don’t ask him where he was this afternoon. I don’t ask him why he didn’t call me back. I don’t know why he didn’t buzz my door instead of scaling the side of the building like some crazy cat burglar, and I don’t care. All I ask is for him to come to bed with me, and he obliges.

We kiss all the way into the bedroom, and once there, Templeton breaks apart from me and he lies down on the bed. I’m standing in the middle of the room. He asks me to undress, and I do. I’m still wearing my work clothes. Reaching up under my skirt, I remove my pantyhose, tossing them silently to the floor in a heap of black nylon. I unbutton my shirt and unzip my skirt; they fall together at my feet as well. I’m standing before him in my bra and underwear. Templeton remains motionless. He lies on my bed watching me, waiting for me to finish. Slowly, I remove the rest of my clothes. They seem to float down to the floor like a feather on the wind. Like the blowing down feather I’d spotted in the laboratory this morning. The look on his face remains unchanged, like he’s feeling nothing. I’m naked before him and he doesn’t feel a thing.

We get under the covers, and I kiss him as passionately as I can, but he’s not giving me anything in return. He seems preoccupied. I sit on top of him. His hands feel my back, as though looking for something, maybe imagining something that isn’t there. Pretending I’m someone that I’m not. Only then does he really kiss me.

He doesn’t waste any time inside of me. Again, romance is substituted for more of a cloacal kiss-type of experience. Still, I’ve never felt as wonderfully vulnerable as I do right now.

His hands never leave my back.

After he finishes, Templeton removes his hands from my shoulder blades, and holds my face in his palms. Then he says it. Those three words: “I love you.”

If only I hadn’t believed him.

For a moment, I completely forget that Claude is missing. That’s the moment that I finally cry. Templeton holds me, and he doesn’t let go until I fall asleep.

I have no idea what time it is when I wake up. It’s still dark. I don’t look for the clock because the first thing that crosses my mind is that Claude is still gone. Scanning the flattened sheets beside me, I can tell that Templeton is now missing as well. But he isn’t far. He hasn’t left me alone this time.

He’s still here, standing across the room. He’s naked, and looking out my window. The glow from the streetlight outside illuminates him. He’s staring up into the night. What he’s looking at, I have no idea. But it seems more like he’s looking for something, rather than at something.

I don’t think he heard me moving, but he turns back to me now. I don’t move an inch; pretending I’m still asleep as he watches me. Staring at me, but not knowing I’m watching him too. The light catches his face, and I notice the dull wet shine of tears in his eyes. What is he thinking? What’s going through his mind? I can’t make sense of it. It’s like I’m still asleep and dreaming. I don’t know if he’s sad or scared or something else I wouldn’t even be able to understand. I don’t dare ask him though. I simply wait. I wait to see what he might do next.

And then he turns and leaves. He takes his clothes, and he leaves my apartment without another word. Without even so much as another scribbled note stuffed in a frog’s mouth.

I don’t sleep the rest of the night, so I don’t know if I ever would’ve woken from a dream or if I was still stuck in some horrible nightmare.

NEXT CHAPTER

Molt – Chapter Ten

Of the Ambiguous and the Once-Amphibious

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

GONE FOR

BREAKFAST SHOW

YOURSELF OUT AVOID ZIRK

AT ALL COSTS

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

And what the hoop is a zirk anyway?

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

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

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

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

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

“Templeton Rate. Is he still…around?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I don’t see a bottle of ammonia anywhere.

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

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

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

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

“Of course you didn’t.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I don’t recognize anything around me at all.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then I remember just how rude he can be.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Tell me about it.”

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

“Now you tell me.”

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

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

“Costume?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Hmm? No. Why would I know her?”

“She was in your class, wasn’t she?”

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

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

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

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

“What’s that?” I ask.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You know Isabella…”

“Isabelle,” I correct him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NEXT CHAPTER

Molt – Chapter Nine

In the Lek

From the field journal of Professor I. Donhelle:

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

………

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 ………

From the field journal of Professor I. Donhelle:

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

 ………

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Is there a point to your story?”

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

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

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

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

 ………

From the field journal of Professor I. Donhelle:

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

 ………

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

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

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

“I’m afraid that’s too personal.”

“You fucked him, didn’t you?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

 ………

From the field journal of Professor I. Donhelle:

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

………

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

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

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

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

No it’s not Templeton Rate. You are.

If I hadn’t stayed there believing his lies.

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

 ………

From the field journal of Professor I. Donhelle:

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

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

………

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

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

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

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

 ………

From the field journal of Professor I. Donhelle:

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

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

 ………

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

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

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

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

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

Formally and informally, my class was officially over.

NEXT CHAPTER

Molt – Chapter Seven

The First Day of Snow

TUESDAY, OCTOBER SEVENTH. It’s a bitter cold morning as I pull into the University parking lot. I lock my door just as the first snowflake of the season lands on my eyelid. It’s not the sudden chill of this ice on my face that sends a shiver down my spine; it’s the sudden knowledge of what this day is. This is the first day of snow. Over the years, I have not had the best of success on the first days of snow.

The first day of snow was the day my grandmother died. The first day of snow was the first time I got my period. Last year was a double whammy: I had my wisdom teeth removed on the first day of snow, and when I returned home from the dentist that afternoon, I opened my door to find that my apartment had been broken into. Claude was untouched, but the rest of the apartment was a mess. I remember yelling at the snow from my open window that night. Even though the pain from oral surgery was unbearable, I had to let the snow know how I felt once and for all. But with fluffy words like “dang” and “hula-hoop” of course. I can’t recall the context in which I used the word hula-hoop exactly, but I’m sure it had applied.

The snowflake has already melted from my eyelid and I fool myself in the hope that maybe it’s just a false alarm. I turn to the front doors of the school, I think about the report in my bag with the name Templeton Rate on it, and I wonder just what might be in store for me behind those doors today. On this day: the first day of snow.

I’m sorting papers as I sit at my desk in the lecture hall, waiting for my Avian Science class to begin. If any of these students would stop texting long enough to actually notice me, they’d probably note that I’m doing a very poor job at looking like I’m sorting papers.

Last night I was imagining what I’d say to this man who disappeared out of thin air last week. An angel is what Sylvie had suggested he was.

Just one more from the litter of angels.

Last night, I wanted to ask him whether he followed me into The Strangest Feeling on purpose or if it was merely a coincidence.

Last night, I wanted to ask him why he abandoned me there, and where exactly he’d disappeared to.

Last night, I wanted him to apologize to me for what had happened.

Last night, I wanted to know how the paper with his name on it fell into my hands.

But that was last night. Right now I just wanted to see him again.

If I hadn’t wanted to see him again.

As I contemplate all of this, I zone out a little. The stack of over-shuffled papers in my hand almost falls to the floor. I need to focus, and get things started here. I don’t know how many students should be in this class, but most of them appear to be here, so I rise from my desk and get on with it.

“Who here can tell me the step-by-step process by which a bird will molt?” A hand is raised, and I’m sure I’ve never seen this girl before. “Yes? Go ahead.”

“Molting is cyclical, right? Birds shed older feathers, which are replaced by pin feathers. Once the pin feathers become full, the older ones will shed again.”

Blue checkmark. A molt will occur at least once a year for adult birds, and in some species, up to as many as four times. Because feathers take up anywhere from five to fourteen percent of a bird’s total body weight, molting requires an enormous amount of its energy. I know this because I have to know this.

“That’s good. Thank you…um, Tanya.”

“Haley.”

Whatever. I take a sip of my coffee. This morning’s selection is a French vanilla latté. Non-fat. No whip cream. The barista who made it wrote ‘N-V-L’ on the side of the cup. Sadly, I’m starting to recognize the handwriting of the various employees.

“Can anyone specify the proper order in which feathers will molt?” Four hands go up, and I make my selection. “John?”

“Jack.”

Close enough.

“Generally,” Jack continues, “a molt begins from the bird’s head, progressing downwards to its wings and torso, and finishing with the tail feathers. Is that correct?”

He’s absolutely right. Blue checkmark. Many birds’ feathers are molted progressively in waves, beginning on the head, face and throat, and extending backward towards the tail. Usually, there is a symmetrical loss of feathers from both sides of the body, which balances feather loss, so that the bird can maintain its energy levels and function normally. I know this because I have to know this.

“I’ll accept that. Are there any examples of a molt that can take place outside of a bird’s standard molting period?”

No hands are raised. But after a few moments to think it over, one student takes the plunge. I gesture an open palm towards him, giving him the go-ahead to share his thoughts.

“How about a frightmolt?” he asks.

“Go on,” I urge him.

“Well, a frightmolt is sometimes activated through fright or fear. In frightmolt, the rectrices are shed most frequently, as are the smaller feathers of the breast and the dorsal tracts. In this type of molt, the bird usually retains the feathers from its head and wings.”

This kid’s been studying, whoever he is. Blue checkmark. In frightmolt, a peculiar molt unique to only a few types of birds such as Passenger Pigeons (Ectopistes migratorius), Mourning Doves (Zenaida macroura) and some upland game birds, feathers are simply expelled or dropped. The slightest contact or pressure will relax the muscles of the feather follicle, and the quill is set free. I know this because I have to know this.

I don’t waste my time in an attempt to identify this student; I simply move on to my next question. “Can anyone think of other biological examples of molting? Not just in birds?”

And then I hear a voice from the hall. Everyone hears it, and rows of heads turn in unison to have a look towards the door.

And I knew it wouldn’t be long.

“I thought this was ornithology?”

I take in that glorious mop of hair over those hauntingly dark eyes. Some dirt still marks his face. It’s Templeton Rate all right, leaning on the frame of the open door.

“That’s correct,” I say. I won’t let him shake me. “This is Avian Science.”

“Well let’s get back to the birds then, huh?” He moves deftly up the steps to find an empty seat next to some skinny brunette that I instantly dislike.

If that skinny brunette had been telling this story, I certainly wouldn’t read it.

He’s snuck up on me again. I feel totally unprepared for what’s happening here. But I’m a professional. I will not be put in my place. Not in my class. “Not quite yet Fauntleroy.”

“It’s Templeton actually.”

“Pardon me. My point was that sometimes it’s important to be aware of how other animals evolve in order to find the exact answers you’re looking for.”

“Do tell, Professor Donhelle,” he quips sharply. Some of the other students snicker a little at his abrasiveness. I can feel him trying to turn my class against me.

“Of course,” I begin, “the most obvious example would be in reptiles, where a snake will shed its skin. Or how about in mammals, when old hairs fall out, only to be replaced again? And molting is known as ecdysis in arthropods, such as when a crayfish sheds its exoskeleton.”

“Simply fascinating,” he says, in his most un-fascinated tone. “Let me ask you this though. Can’t molting be a psychological process as well as a physical one?”

Red circle.

“You mean in the figurative sense?”

“To molt is to change, correct? It’s a transformation into someone or something else. Psychologically or physically. Temporarily or permanently.”

Another red circle. If this were any other student on any other day, I probably would have excused them from the lecture hall for being so antagonistic. I’m not the kind to simply put up with unjustified hostility in my class. And yet, Templeton Rate has a sneaky way of getting me to listen to his every word.

“Don’t you agree?” he asks me. Without another response from me, Templeton looks around him for some endorsement. “Do any of you agree?” I catch some nervous eyes as they dart around the room; the students are starting to wonder where this conversation is headed, and whether or not it might hold any relevance to what will be on their next exam. “Aren’t any of you paying attention in this class?” And truthfully, I’m starting to wonder if I should be taking notes as well.

“Change is one thing Templeton,” I finally say. “It’s a small shift in behavior. It’s taking the bus home instead of an offered ride. It’s drinking your first coffee, or smoking your first cigarette. But evolution dictates another thing entirely.”

“Not to me it doesn’t.”

“Well, that being said, fact will always win out over opinion.”

“Is that a fact?” The brunette beside him shifts away from Templeton, just a little closer towards the wall. Maybe my dislike for her was not quite as justified as I had first thought.

“Yes it is.”

Lacking any better answer, all I get from Templeton is, “Well, that’s just your opinion Professor.”

Again, red circle.

……..

Just over an hour later my class is finished. Not soon enough though. Templeton Rate kept to himself for pretty much the remainder of the lecture; he was scribbling something down on a piece of paper the entire time. I couldn’t avoid being a little bit distracted by his presence. And I don’t work well with distractions. It was as though my class was the Power Of Science, and Templeton was that smelly, bloodied raven.

The students begin to file out, on to live the rest of their lives. Templeton coolly walks to the front of the lecture hall, picks up my empty coffee cup and tosses it into the recycling bin. He sits in its place on the edge of my desk as I try to piece it all together.

“How have you been, beautiful?” he asks.

I take a peek at the coffee cup in the garbage, and I wonder if there might have been at least one more cold drop left. “I’ve been a lot less wired,” I say to him. “I think I’ve had too much coffee lately.”

“So, where did you disappear to on Thursday night?” he has the nerve to ask me.

“Excuse me?”

“I came back from the can, and you were gone. That horrible cheese bread made me shit like a goose.” I’m unimpressed by his language, but I’m a little more astonished by his on-the-spot avian simile. Geese spend most of their waking hours consuming mass amounts of vegetation, but their digestion is rapid and inefficient. As such, they excrete feces almost nonstop.

“So what’s the deal?” he continues, “I thought I still owed you another cup of coffee?”

“Actually, you owe me a meal as well now, since I had to pay for two.”

“Well then, how’s tonight sound?”

“I don’t think so Templeton. I’ve got more papers to mark. And if they’re as bad last night’s bunch, I won’t be going anywhere tomorrow night either.” I start collecting my materials, although I just have to ask him, “How can you blame me for ditching you last week? I looked for you at the diner, but you were gone.”

“I was in the ladies room. Maybe you didn’t notice in your exhaustive search, but that men’s room was more than just a little bit revolting.”

Maybe I noticed? Perhaps only if I had lost all five of my senses, would there have been any doubt. Now that I think of it though, I probably should have checked the ladies room as well as the men’s, just to be sure.

Before I can ask Templeton anything about the case of the magically appearing report he’d written, he’s already generating some new problems for me. “I’ve got another paper for you to look at. I wrote it right now, during class.”

I try my best to downplay any interest. “Wonderful. I’m sure it’s another brilliant opus.” I wish my façade were the truth, and that I really wasn’t interested. That would make things so much easier. But how do I change the subject? And do I really want to? “You wrote a full paper in the last hour?” I ask him, hoping the end to this conversation might be getting a tiny bit closer. “How is that possible?”

“Well, I don’t know what constitutes a full paper, but it is two pages.”

“I’d say more than two pages.”

“Actually, it’s more like one-and-a-half. And double-spaced. And I did some of it last night while I was working.”

“The doorman thing, right?”

“Yeah, that’s right. It’s nice to know you were paying attention to the details.” He unfolds two pieces of paper from inside his coat pocket, and holds them out for me. I notice his hands are covered with tiny scrapes and scratches, all in various states of healing. “I had to borrow some paper from that babe next to me though.”

“I knew you were the kind of guy that copied answers.”

“I don’t know if that would help me much in this class. Everyone here seems a little tardy.”

“Tardy means late. I think you mean retarded?”

Templeton presses, and waves the papers in his hand. “Well, are you going to take a look at it or what?”

I’m careful to not get any of the dirt from the paper on my fingers as I scan all one-and-a-half double-spaced pages. Like the report I read through last night, this one is also written in charcoal. All things considered though, his penmanship is still quite reasonable. The content, however, is anything but. It’s just more of the same unsubstantiated randomness as Templeton’s previous paper. Actually, it’s even worse, as if on purpose. I mean, someone would really have to be trying pretty hard to get his facts any more wrong than this, but he’s managed to pull it off.

Red circle.

I’m almost too distracted by what’s going on around me to remember what the most important issue here really is. “Why exactly are you giving me these papers anyway? As far as I knew, you’re not enrolled at Hawthorne.”

“Who said I am? I never told you I was.”

“Well, are you or aren’t you?”

“Why wouldn’t I be?” he replies defensively. “I’d have to be pretty fucking bored with my life to have nothing better to do than hang out with a bunch of retarded bird-watchers in my free time.”

I hand the papers back to him. “You’re a very perplexing individual, Templeton Rate.”

“So that’s what you like about me. I was wondering what it would be exactly.” Templeton re-folds his masterpiece and slips it back into his pocket. “Listen, the reason I’m here is to learn. And the reason you’re here, in case you didn’t know, is to teach people like me.”

“People like you?”

“It’s all very simple, Professor Donhelle.”

He’s got me right where he wants me. And something inside me simply doesn’t want to fight it anymore. So I get up on the figurative diving board…

“I suppose if you’re free later tonight, I’d be willing to meet you in the library for some extra help. How would six o’clock work for you?”

Templeton leans right in my face. And am I mistaken, or is that cheese bread still wedged between his two front teeth? “Really?” he asks, almost surprised by my offer.

…And I take the figurative plunge.

“You’re right. It is my job. I would be doing a disservice to this school if I didn’t offer you my help. You could obviously use it.”

If I didn’t offer him that extra help.

“Look at you,” he says with a victorious smile. “You are molting. Right before my eyes.”

He turns away from me and exits the lecture hall, his last words trailing from beyond the door. “Let’s make it six-thirty. I’ve got another class this afternoon. See you then.”

I look back in the trash at the empty cup of coffee, and I wonder if I have just made a big mistake. On this day: the first day of snow.

NEXT CHAPTER

Molt – Chapter Three

The Strangest Feeling

THURSDAY, OCTOBER SECOND. I remember sitting on the bus. This is a horrible place to start a story, but I suppose it’s as good a place as any other I can think of.

Boston, Massachusetts. One month ago. It’s my twenty-ninth birthday, and I’m sitting on the cold, orange plastic seat of bus #3031, probably the oldest bus that the MBTA owned. This thing seems to be running on time that had already run out. Every bump in the road causes every piece of it to shake violently. Some things shake when I’m certain they shouldn’t. I can feel parts of myself shaking that shouldn’t be. The floor seems to move independently from the rest of the bus, which certainly has to be a safety hazard. On the seat next to me is an old ragged newspaper. The date is smudged, but it appears to read ‘November 2, 1982.’ That can’t be right, can it? One of the banner ads above me has a picture of a Spine-Tailed Swift (Hirundapus caudacutus) on it, the second-fastest bird in the world. I think it’s an advertisement for an ink-jet printer, but I’m really not sure.

Professor Nickwelter and a few more of the teaching staff at Hawthorne University decided to throw an intimate birthday dinner for me, and after calling it an evening, I decided to treat myself to this spectacular bus ride. Happy birthday me.

There’s something about turning twenty-nine that seems to instantly make you feel older than thirty. I can’t explain it, but I can certainly feel it tonight.

I remember when I was a little girl, growing up in Ville Constance and dreaming of this day. Well, let me make it clear; not this day as it’s turned out to be, but this day as I thought it would be. An imaginary life. With the perfect husband and flowers beside my bed. It’s my personal opinion that until girls turn sixteen, they shouldn’t have even the slightest concept of marriage explained to them. It’s a dangerous idea to have in your head when you’re an eight-year-old girl. Like carrying around a loaded gun, not that I would have any idea what to do with it. So many dreams are forged at that age; dreams that seem realistically attainable, that it’s hard to face the inevitable and disappointing reality of it all.

So now I’m twenty-nine years old. I’m allergic to flowers and about as close to being married as I was twenty-one years ago. Actually, it seems as though I might have been closer back then, because that’s when I still had some hope. I guess you could call this my mid-life crisis, but feeling so near to the end as I do right now, my mid-life crisis must have happened around the time I was fifteen. Although, for the life of me, I can’t recall what that event must’ve been. I can only narrow it down to one disappointing day:

If I hadn’t been cut from the Doneau High basketball team.

Thinking about all of this, I start to zone out. My thoughts are somewhere else entirely, but my eyes are focused squarely on the metal pole before me. I’m paying specific attention to a tiny screw in the center, attaching the pole to the seat in front of me. One of those screws with the X-shaped hole in the middle. I know that buried somewhere deep within that empty black cross lies the answers to whatever it is I’m asking myself. I’m looking, but not seeing. The mind and the eyes are so closely related, that it’s impossible to imagine just how far apart mine were at this moment. Like they were two Snow Buntings (Plectrophenax nivalis) on opposing mountain peaks. Or like the American Rhea (Rhea americana) and the African Ostrich (Struthio camelus), who so obviously shared a common ancestor, but haven’t had contact with one another since before the continents divided. The entire world is flying by me just outside that window at a steady pace of fifteen miles-an-hour. But I remain completely unaware of it.

I almost seem to be getting somewhere when my senses come crashing back together. A hand grips the pole in front of me; a little dirty, but a perfectly flawless hand nonetheless. It covers up the screw and seemingly all of the answers buried within it, and it’s enough to bring me back down to Earth.

What force could have been responsible for this near-impossible task? At the time, I had no idea who he was. And yet, even as this man would bring my feet back to the ground at that moment, he would later try to take them right off again. But I’m getting ahead of myself here. What did happen on that bus at that moment?

He’s staring right at me, and a little too obviously for my liking. I cross my legs and adjust the top button of my blouse, so as not to give this creep a free show. I try my best to focus my thoughts back to the dinner party I had escaped from.

Okay. Concentrate. It’s Thursday night. I was just downtown at Café d’Averno with the four of them; there was Professor Nickwelter, former head of the ornithology department, now my assistant at Hawthorne University; Professor James, head of genetics; Professor Claus, our zoology expert; and Jerry Humphries, who runs the school’s bird sanctuary and laboratories. I don’t know whose idea it was to invite Humphries, as no one here seems to be able to stand the despicable man. Especially myself.

We would have an unscheduled long weekend due to a small fire this morning in the university’s south laboratory. A blown fuse box I was told, but more likely it was a student horsing around. Quite a dangerous place for a fire, but I was told no serious damage was inflicted. In order to make sure the rest of the school was safe, we were given Friday off.

Café d’Averno, as far as I know, is named after a famous lake in Southern Italy, Lake Avernus. The ancient Romans considered the lake to be a gateway to Hell, and that its volcanic fumes that filled the air were deadly enough to kill every bird that flew in its vicinity. The word for Hell, Averno, literally means “a place without birds,” and maybe I’m just biased, but I personally believe this to be a correct statement.

At the center of Averno’s, there was a fountain surrounded by eight Muscovy Ducks (Cairina moschata) meticulously carved into the marble base. The French crossbred Muscovy ducks and mallards for cooking to obtain Barbary ducks, which have a milder taste. A popular belief is that Muscovy ducks had gotten their name from the musky odor of their flesh.

There’s something about birds that I find extraordinarily soothing. Whenever I’m feeling uncomfortable, or if I simply need to calm myself down, I have a habit of looking around for birds wherever I am. They’re everywhere, whether real or not. You’d be surprised if you really focused on it. Anyway, the duck carvings on the fountain were just enough to put me at ease again. That is, until I turned back to the dinner party. Or more specifically, towards Professor Nickwelter.

Nickwelter and I had a history together of which everyone here knew about, and it only served to make the meal even more uncomfortable. For me, at least. But everybody had always done their best to try not to bring up any off-handed mention of our shaky past. It’s been two years since our relationship had ended, and I’m still awkward about the entire situation.

If I hadn’t slept with Professor Nickwelter.

After hors d’oeuvres, we ordered dinner. Nickwelter, James, and Humphries all had the roasted duck, which is quite remarkable coming from three grown men who have made the studying and caring for birds into their chosen career. Professor Claus (who is affectionately known as ‘Mrs. Claus’ by the faculty and students at Hawthorne) had the tofu spinach burger with cabbage. I ordered the spaghetti with meatballs, and was met with cheers from the surrounding company. They had actually made a bet earlier as to what I would order; three of them said spaghetti. Humphries guessed pork chops. Pork chops? I’ve always hated pork chops, not that he would know that. I’m almost certain that pork chops weren’t even on the menu, but apparently he had his reasons. The pretentious twit. Although, now that I think about it, I hadn’t noticed whether or not I’ve ever eaten such an exorbitant amount of spaghetti, with meatballs or otherwise, that people would take such an active notice either.

I tried to change the subject, to talk about something other than myself. But once dinner was served, the conversation had quickly been forced back towards me, and it was definitely the figurative arrow I did not want pointing my way. It went something like this:

PROFESSOR NICKWELTER: “You look magnificent tonight Isabelle. Is that a new wristwatch? Whatever happened to the last one?”

PROFESSOR JAMES: “I hope you don’t consider yourself old for being on the brink of thirty. You’re still a spring chicken, Donhelle! By the way, do you know the origins of the term ‘spring chicken?’ Remind me to tell you later. It’s really quite an amusing anecdote.”

MRS. CLAUS: “Isabelle, why don’t you come by my place after dinner for some non-fat organic birthday cake? I have a family recipe that’s to die for.”

JERRY HUMPHRIES: “You need a ride home tonight, Bella?”

And my answer was the same for all of them:

ME: “I think the spaghetti was bad. Excuse me while I go use the ladies room.”

We hadn’t been at the restaurant for any longer than an hour, and I had already made three trips to the ladies room. It seemed to be the only the place I could go to get some air. Engraved in many of the tiles on the bathroom wall were images of Sandhill Cranes (Grus canadensis) standing one-legged in pools of water. When roosting, cranes will tuck one leg up under their feathers to keep it warm while standing on the other. In the Middle Ages, it was believed that a sentry crane held a stone within its hidden foot, and would drop it if he fell asleep or if its attention was diverted, thereby waking its companions. In heraldry, a crane is often shown holding a stone, as a reminder of alertness.

If only I had been paying attention that night.

To make this exhaustingly boring story just a bit shorter, I decided to simply leave Café d’Averno early. I honestly don’t know if spaghetti has the capability of going bad, but they let me go on my own without too much of a struggle, even though I had gotten a lift to the restaurant with Mrs. Claus. Humphries still had the ride home offer on the table, and I still declined. That smug little weasel. For some reason, the idea of riding public transit seemed to appeal to me much more tonight than it ever had before in my life.

If I hadn’t decided to take the bus home.

Had all the talk of me being another year older, another year closer to thirty, been getting to me? Maybe a little bit. The truth is, I’ve never dealt with change very well. I am from Ville Constance, after all. The Constant City. I know I’m getting older, we all are with every passing second, but I guess I’ve felt as though things never seem to change for me as much as I think they should. Do I avoid change because I’m really just itching to turn it around? Do I keep my life stagnant because I’m aching to do something completely unexpected? Was I staring so intensely into the void of that screw in front of me because I’m really just afraid to be a part of the changing world around me? Is the world changing without me?

I turn back to this man on the bus, his gaze still upon me. A part of me wonders if he’d ever taken his eyes off me at all, while another part of me wonders whether or not I actually wanted him to. He nods his head towards me, and I tighten up defensively once again. The level of discomfort I’m feeling at this precise moment is completely unexplainable. What’s this guy staring at me for anyway? And why me? Again, I adjust my blouse and turn my body away from him. In my head, I count down from ten before looking back up…

Three…Two…One…Zero.

And there he is.

“Can I help you?” I ask abruptly, defiantly. As soon as the words leave my lips, I worry that maybe I shouldn’t have said anything at all. My mother always told me never to talk to strangers, but when exactly comes the point in one’s life that Mom’s advice can be disregarded? When can I make my own decisions without having to still hear her voice nattering away inside my head?

“Are you offering your help,” he begins calmly, and then blinks in what seems like slow motion, “or do I have to beg you for it?” He isn’t cracking a smile at all; he just says this matter-of-factly. As though the ambiguousness of his words can only be interpreted one way.

That’s it for me though. I pull the bus dinger as if it was a parachute’s ripcord and I I’m perilously close to hitting the ground. I get up from my seat and run across the shaky floor to the exit at the back of the bus. The driver slows to a stop and I jump off into the darkness of the city. I turn back to make sure the man didn’t follow me off the bus. He didn’t. Bus #3031 speeds off to where, just one minute ago, I thought I was going.

Taking a look around me, I discover a part of Boston that I don’t recognize. It’s dirty. It’s smelly. It’s making me uncomfortable. But I think that not knowing where I am is exactly where I want to be. Directly behind me, and nestled in between two of the vilest triple-x establishments I’ve ever seen is The Strangest Feeling, a little diner with yellow smoke-stained windows. Beneath the alternating green lights flashing from one pornography shop to the orange lights flashing from the other, The Strangest Feeling seems strangely welcoming.

So I go in.

If I hadn’t walked inside The Strangest Feeling.

Inside, it appears to be one of those retro eateries that make you feel as though you’re sitting right in the middle of the 1940’s. I sit up at the front counter on a stool with a flat plastic cushion, even worse than the seat on the bus.

I begin to take in everything behind the counter; malt vinegar bottles, pancake syrup, plastic bears filled with honey, jars and boxes stuffed with dozens of different types of tea bags and an old-fashioned pop bottle with a faded image of Marilyn Monroe on it.

The night waitress comes out from the kitchen. She pulls the menu out that’s wedged between the sugar dispenser and the ketchup bottle and she tosses it in front of me. But before I can open the oversized laminated menu she speaks up.

“What’ll it be sweetheart?” she asks me, instantly reminding me of my mother. She smacks her bubble gum as though she really doesn’t care what my answer will be.

I’m almost too overwhelmed by the sight of this girl to give an immediate response. Her nametag says ‘Kitty’ for one thing, and her lips are this sort of neon green color. The kind of color that should strictly be reserved for tacky electric signs on steak houses. Or maybe they were just reflecting the flashing green porno shop signs outside. Feeling pressured to make some kind of decision, I simply ask, “What’s your special?”

“Tonight’s special is pea soup with our homemade cheese bread.” She smacks her lips a couple more times before finishing her response. “I highly recommend it.”

I’m not really full from my earlier meal at Averno’s. Since my dinner guests had never stopped bombarding me with ridiculous questions, I didn’t get the chance to eat my meal while it was still hot. It’s really not fair that there were four mouths shooting off questions and only one mouth left to answer them. They all took turns talking and eating, while I was too polite to speak with my mouth full, so I opted to not even try.

“How bad could it be then?” I ask, mostly to myself.

She answers anyway. “No worse than tomorrow’s special, I suppose” she says with a smirk. “Is that all then?”

Behind the counter I spot a varied selection of tiny cereal boxes, three ceramic dancing Hawaiian hula girls with ukuleles, and a large coffee maker with five pots of coffee brewing. I don’t know if it’s because there are five full pots of coffee and I’m the only customer in here, but I think about having some. I’ve never had a cup of coffee in my life before; just the thought of it has never appealed to me. I think it’s partly because my father once told me that caffeine was a drug, and I’d be good to stay away from drugs. I take a moment to consider how much of a lame-o I must be, and then I ask Kitty for a cup of coffee.

“You sure about that?” she asks, as if seeing right through me.

“Maybe just a tea then,” I say, taking it back. But I the part of me that was looking for a change tonight is what stops Kitty before she can walk away. “No. Sorry,” I say, the words stumbling out of my mouth. “I think I will have that cup of coffee.” It’s subtle, but I know she’s rolling her eyes at me a little.

If I hadn’t asked for that one cup of coffee.

“Thanks,” I confirm.

“You got it.” She writes my order down in her head, and saunters back into the kitchen. I slide the menu back into its resting place and consider just how bad tomorrow’s special might be. I also wonder when neon green lipstick was ever in style.

I take notice of the large Jones Cola machine, a breadbox that may or may not contain bread, a coffee bean grinder and an old-fashioned metal fan with a wire grate covering the blade. An unplugged cord is loosely tied around the base. Above the order window to the kitchen are about a dozen black and white photographs, which appear to be both employees and patrons of The Strangest Feeling. On one of the walls there is a poorly painted mural of a sunrise; the colors are cracked and bubbled, showing years of neglect. On the ceiling are matching painted clouds.

But in this entire diner, I can’t seem to find a single image of a bird anywhere. It makes me feel a little uneasy; as though I’m way too far out of my element.

It really is the strangest feeling.

An early October Boston chill creeps inside the diner. I almost reach for the newspaper down the counter, but then I remember how tired I am of reading about bad news. And I worry that the paper could potentially have the same date as the one I saw on the bus earlier.

Kitty comes back out and pours some coffee from one of the pots into a generous-sized ceramic mug. She places the mug and a spoon onto a tiny plate in front of me. The spoon has a design on the end of it that I can’t make out. I imagine that if I held it at just the right angle under the diner’s dim lights, it might be charitable enough to resemble an African Penguin (Spheniscus demersus). Maybe I’m trying too hard to look for a comforting sign, but maybe the unknown is better right now. Maybe I need to feel out of my element tonight.

If I hadn’t been out of my element.

Kitty tosses some plastic cups of cream onto the table, smacking her gum all the while. I can smell that pink, sugary flavor with every bite. If smell could be described as pink, this was it.

I try my best to seem as though I belong in this caffeine-induced society. Tearing the lids off of two cups of cream (actually, it’s more like I was picking away at it until I could get a grip of the slippery paper seal with my teeth, then pulling slowly enough so as not to spill it all over myself), I pour it in with a dash of sugar. That’s right, a dash. It sounds like the correct amount. I think from a stranger’s perspective, I must appear pretty experienced for someone who’s never had a cup of coffee in her life.

I take a sip.

And it’s really not very good. I pour in what must be the equivalent of three or four packs of sugar into my cup.

Another tentative sip.

It’s tolerable now. Who knows, maybe it’ll grow on me by the end of the night?

Five minutes later, I’m hoping the pea soup and cheese bread might grow on me as well. I’m also hoping that there really are peas in here somewhere, because I can’t tell for sure. At least the bread is decent enough, though I can’t seem to decipher the crust from the actual bread. There are a few reasons running through my head as to why this diner is called The Strangest Feeling. Still, I feel more content here all by myself than I did at Café d’Averno earlier tonight with my incessant co-workers. And I certainly feel safer than I did on the bus.

That is, until ringing bells indicate the door to The Strangest Feeling has swung open. A lone man enters, and he sits right beside me at the counter, even though there are plenty of other empty seats in here.

“What can I get you, sugar?” Kitty asks him, smacking her bubble gum between those crayon-colored lips.

I catch his reflection in the mirrored mini fridge behind the counter. It’s the same guy from the bus; the one I specifically came in here to avoid. How the fudge did he follow me in here so quickly? I made sure he didn’t get off the bus when I did. I can see his reflection motion towards mine as he replies to the waitress, “I’ll have what she’s having.”

“And a coffee?” she asks.

In the reflection, I see him glance down into my coffee cup to check its contents. “Yep.”

Kitty walks off, and I continue to stare at him from the mini fridge. Before I can decide whether sitting here any longer is still a good idea, his eyes turn to mine in the glass. That same smile from the bus is still smeared across his face. “You recommend the pea soup and cheese bread?” he calmly asks my mirror image.

What do I say now? Panic mode has set in, and yet I feel as though it’s far too late to do anything rational. “Not really,” I say to him. “I just wanted to try something new tonight.”

If I hadn’t answered him.

Our reflections don’t turn away from each other, and I get a much better look at his features now. Beautiful brown eyes beneath a thick, messy head of hair. A strong jaw and that overly confident smile breaking through cracked lips. His skin has a certain hardness to it; well-tanned, but with just the faintest trace of dirt or soot on his face. Probably from the same source as the grime on his knuckles I captured earlier.

“You get that feeling often?” he asks, reaching into his coat to scratch his armpit. “That you want to try something new?”

“To tell the truth, I get that feeling all the time,” I say to him. “But tonight’s the first time that I’ve ever acted on it.”

He peers into the kitchen now, as though he’s already growing impatient for his meal. With his elbows, he pushes himself up to take a better look. He’s not paying attention to me, but still asks, “Is that a French accent?”

“Uh…yeah.” I say. “French-Canadian.”

With a quick motion, he reaches over the counter and grabs a spoon from behind the bar. I don’t know why he does it, but he sits right down again and turns back to face my reflection. “What’s that?” he asks, as if just realizing I had answered him.

“I said I’m French-Canadian.”

“Is there such a thing?”

I can’t tell if he’s joking or not. He’s not blinking. He simply stares through the mini-fridge, and into my eyes like he’s waiting for me to go on. He rattles the spoon between his teeth.

Before I can utter another word, Kitty makes her timely return. She sets down an empty cup, pours some coffee for him and then refills mine. She’s still smacking her gum as she tosses some more plastic cups of cream onto the countertop.

I pour some more cream and sugar into my coffee. From the mini-fridge I notice this man next to me doing the same. Mimicking exactly how I prepare my cup of coffee. How can he do that? Didn’t I conceive of these particular measurements myself just now? Do I not reserve the right to be offended by someone else’s identical coffee-preparing preferences? I turn to him, and I force the words out, “I can see what you’re doing.”

“Hmmm?” he replies innocently, without even a hint of innocence.

“You follow me in here, you sit right beside me and you order the same thing I do. And now you’re putting the exact same amount of cream and sugar in your coffee as me.”

“Strangest coincidence, isn’t it?”

I pick up my spoon, and stir the coffee around. He does the same. Our metal spoons clinking with the rims of our ceramic cups in perfect harmony. He places his spoon back down, just as I do.

Upon closer inspection, I notice the t-shirt he’s wearing underneath his buttoned-up weathered coat has an image ironed on the front. It appears to be the feathery cap a Brown-Headed Nuthatch (Sitta pusilla). At least, that’s what it looks like from this angle. It’s enough to make me smile a little, whether I mean to or not.

He holds out his hand. “My name’s Templeton Rate.”

I don’t move an inch. Templeton Rate, I think. Sounds made up to me.

“I know it sounds made up, but that’s really my name,” he says, as if taking the words right out of my head. Actually, the words were still in my head, so I guess it was more like he got in, made a xerox copy of my words, and then got back out again before saying it. Well, whatever. You get the idea. Either way, I wasn’t really sure just what to make of the situation I’d now found myself in. It was all very strange. Although I think I was finding the slightest bit of comfort from the head of the nuthatch peeking out from Templeton Rate’s coat.

I know he can smell my fear, and he presses on. “Are you going to get into the habit of trying new things?” he asks. “Because it’s really not such a bad habit to have, you know.”

Maybe he was right. Maybe this was going to be a new habit for me. Maybe it should be. That change in my life that I always seemed to avoid for fear of ending up somewhere I didn’t want to be? Maybe this was it. Who am I kidding? Of course this was it.

It was at that precise moment I made the mistake; the one mistake that led this story to end it the way it does. I could’ve gotten up right then and there, but like a fool I stayed.

If I hadn’t had that first cup of coffee; if I hadn’t entered The Strangest Feeling; if I hadn’t gotten on that bus; if I hadn’t lied to my co-workers about the spaghetti; if I hadn’t been cut from the Doneau High basketball team.

That’s right Mrs. Wyatt; this is all your fault.

Templeton repeats his last question, since it probably seems as though I didn’t hear him. “I said trying new things is really not such a bad habit to have, is it?”

“I don’t know,” I start. “The bread’s a little stale. And the soup is watery.”

That’s what I chose say to him. I just couldn’t leave well enough alone. Those were the words that sealed my fate, and the fate of the whole city. Maybe even the world. That’s not being too dramatic, is it?

“I’m not going to lie to you,” is what he says back to me. “I’m much better than stale bread and watery soup.”

And I believed him. Whoops. Sorry world.

If I hadn’t believed a word he said.

His hand is still held out in front of me, so I lift mine into his. It’s the warmest hand I think I’ve ever felt. In fact, it’s so warm that I have no problem telling him whatever it is he wants to know. “Isabelle,” I say to him.

“That’s a little bit better…” he replies, not letting go of my hand.

Whatever he wants at all. “Isabelle Donhelle.”

“Ah. Perfect.” He pauses for a moment, thinking about this. “You know, that name sounds more made up than mine. Are you sure you’re telling me the entire truth?”

“Of course I am,” I say defensively.

“Really?”

“Why wouldn’t I be?”

If I hadn’t told him the truth.

He stares back into my eyes, much deeper than I’m comfortable with. It feels like he knows I’m lying, even though I know I’m not. “That’s funny…” he starts, as he raises the cup to his mouth. He takes a loud slurp. It’s almost loud enough that one would assume he’s doing it intentionally, for whatever reason men do anything. But it’s just loud enough that I can tell he simply has no manners. Basically, he’s a pig. Although, the fool that I am, I chalk it up to poor parental guidance, since he seems to be trying his best to be a gentleman.

He swallows the coffee, but before he can finish what it was he had started to say, he squirms uncontrollably in his seat, as though he just had a sip of flat root beer. He turns back to me accusingly, “Fuck,” he says. “Do you really drink coffee with this much sugar in it?”

“Actually, that’s something new for me too. I guess I’m really spreading my wings today, aren’t I?”

“Of course you are.” He places his coffee cup back down in front of him, but he continues to feel the handle with his fingers. “But you’d better be careful when spreading your wings that you have a safe place to land.”

I look down to the floor, but I can’t tell if I’m looking for a safe place, or if I’m looking for the right thing to say instead.

It doesn’t matter though, as the moment is ruined anyway. Templeton’s hand tips his coffee cup over. Steaming, sugary coffee spills onto the countertop and drips down onto the checkerboard-tiled floor. I can’t tell for certain if this was intentional or not, since he doesn’t seem the least bit surprised or embarrassed. The waitress runs over to clean it up. I tell her “sorry,” since Templeton clearly isn’t going to. In fact, he doesn’t even acknowledge her. Again, I blame this on an unfortunate upbringing. She says it’s all right and asks Templeton if he wants a refill, but he continues to ignore her, keeping his attention focused entirely on me.

“So, are you new in town? I haven’t seen you around Boston before, Isabelle Donhelle.”

I try my best to forget about the coffee too. “It’s a big city, Templeton Rate.”

“Hey, I’m from Schenectady. I know big cities. This is nothing.”

Schenectady? I don’t know whether to laugh or just agree with him. He sure seems serious. Maybe I’m just thinking of another Schenectady. “And I’m always on the lookout for cute French girls in greasy diners, so I know you’re definitely new around here.”

“The truth is that I really don’t get out much.”

The waitress comes back with Templeton’s soup, bread and a fresh cup of coffee.

“So tell me something,” he says to me, and then waits for a response. Although I’m not quite sure what it is he’s looking for.

“Pardon me?” I ask.

He reaches for the salt and pepper, and shakes some into the hot pea soup as he clarifies. “I want to know something about you that I couldn’t have pieced together just by sitting here at this counter for the last ten minutes. Like what do you do for a living? Have you ever mixed your whites with your colors? When I say French impressionist, do you think painter or comedian? Do you have a jealous boyfriend? Have you ever seen the sun set from underwater?”

“I can answer the first one for you.”

“Go ahead.”

“I’m a teacher. Well, professor actually.”

“And the rest?”

“I either have no idea what you’re talking about, or it’s simply none of your business.”

“Do you sleep naked?”

Again, I’m not sure whether he’s serious or joking, so I don’t answer.

He takes a package of saltine crackers, crushes it inside his palm, and sprinkles the contents into his soup. “I guess that falls under the ‘none of my business’ category, right?”

“That’s right.”

“Well, teacher is a good start,” he says, satisfied for now with the amount of information that I’ve awarded him with. “I’m a student. But I also work part-time as a doorman.”

“I see. What is it that you study exactly?”

He takes some more packages of saltines from the counter, and crushes them in his hand too. “I guess that depends on what it is you’re teaching.”

“It does, does it? I don’t think you’d ever find your way into my class Templeton. You kind of need to know something first.”

Pouring more cracker dust into his soup, he tries his best to impress me. “I know that the human heart creates enough pressure to shoot blood thirty feet. I know the circumference of the Earth would never be exactly the same, no matter how many times you measure it. I know why it is that vertical stripes look better on fat people than they do on skinny people. What makes you think I don’t have what it takes?” There’s a mountain of crumbled crackers on his soup now.

“It’s just that you seem like the type of guy that copies the answers from the person next to you is all.”

“I don’t copy answers. There’s no need to copy anything when there aren’t any right answers in the first place.”

“For nothing at all? What about your vertical stripe paradox?”

“Listen to me Isabella. The amount of things in this world that we don’t know so greatly outnumbers the things we do, that I don’t think any ‘answer’ can ever truly be one-hundred percent correct. Does that make any sense to you?”

“I don’t know if you’ve been paying attention, but my name’s Isabelle. Not Isabella.”

He ignores me completely, and takes a big bite out of the bread. Again, this is kind of bite that only a lack of proper parental supervision can be held responsible for. “There’s a difference between having the right answer and knowing the truth.” The Templeton Rate Guide to Etiquette obviously doesn’t say anything about talking with a mouth full of food.

“That’s profound. I don’t know how you could ever top that.” I don’t mean to sound like I’m challenging him, but that’s how it comes out.

He forces the bread down his throat without much gratification. “Fuck. This cheese bread really is terrible. I’ve got to take a shit.” Templeton gets up to use the bathroom, but turns back to me before exiting. “I want to buy you another cup of coffee though. What do you say?”

What should I say? For too long I’ve avoided situations just like this when maybe I should’ve taken the chance instead.

He leans in closer to me, almost closer than what I’m comfortable with. I can see a tiny piece of bread still lodged between his two front teeth. “Look at you. I can tell you’re wanting to break out,” he says, coming a little closer. I can smell the hint of cheese and coffee on his breath. “You’re itching to do something completely unexpected, aren’t you? You want to become someone you’ve never had the chance to be before. And you want me to help you get there, don’t you?” Even closer now. There’s a disregarded nose hair that’s grown longer than the rest, and I can see it fanning back and forth with his every breath. “What do you say Isabella?” His faults are just obvious enough that I can tell he’s the most realistic person I’ve ever met. And there’s the familiar little brown-headed nuthatch poking its head out from under Templeton’s coat. How can I possibly resist all of this tonight?

So I don’t. “Isabelle,” is what I say, correcting him once again.

He doesn’t say anything else; he just turns and walks towards the washrooms. As he exits, I replay the whole encounter in my mind. I still wonder how it is that he managed to follow me here, and I think that I’ll ask him as soon as he comes back.

What does Templeton Rate want from me? And what do I want from him? I’m not entirely sure, but I’m hoping to figure that out too when he returns.

Then a feeling comes over me, one that I haven’t felt for probably two years, since I accepted the teaching position at Hawthorne. It’s the feeling of anticipation. I finish off my meal, and discover that even the bread and soup are not so bad now. Why is that? Why is it that when you sense a particular feeling in your heart, all of your other senses take a temporary vacation?

If I hadn’t remained at that counter, waiting for him to return.

I hear the men’s room door as it swings open, but I don’t look. I wait for Templeton to sit back down beside me so I can ask him everything I need to right away. So I can get all of these thoughts out of my head that have been accumulating since he left. But it’s not Templeton who exits from the bathroom. Another man, a fat man who must have come into the diner when I was fumbling with my emotions, stumbles by me and breaks my train of thought. The stench of men’s room is all over him, and I pray that my pseudo-date’s smell is not so similar when he comes back.

If he comes back. It’s been ten minutes now, and the steam from our coffee has vanished. It’s cold, but I swallow the rest of mine with determination. I wonder if maybe I did put too much sugar in my cup. The soggy mess of crackers sinks slowly into Templeton’s untouched soup.

It’s after twenty minutes that I figure I’d better go and investigate his whereabouts. I rap my hand on the men’s room door, and call out to him. “Templeton?”

But there’s no answer.

I try again with the same result: no answer. So I creak the door open a little and take a peek inside, but I don’t see anything apart from a tiled wall in front of me. So I carefully take a step in. Around the corner are two urinals against the wall. I’ve heard the horror stories, and seen them in movies before, but I’ve honestly never seen a urinal in person until this moment. And trust me, if you’ve never seen one either, don’t go out of your way to fill that void. I won’t go into too much detail, but I’m sure you could stuff a pillow with all of the hairs in there. They were everywhere: on the wall, on the floor, stuck to the inside, floating in the puddle of water, and all over the little white puck-thing covering the drain. Black hairs. Brown hairs. Red hairs. Yellow hairs. All of them thick and curly. I know I wanted a change in my life, but right now this might be going a little too far outside of my comfort zone. I take a step back, and the urinal flushes automatically, which is the lone bright spot of my visit to the men’s room; I wouldn’t want to have to flush this thing manually either.

The two stalls behind me are closed. I give each one a tap with the back of my hand, even though I really should be leaving at this point. “Templeton? Are you in there?”

Still no reply.

I open the first door, and I almost fall back from the stink that wafts towards me. It smells an awful lot like that fat man who walked out of here ten minutes ago. And it’s also obvious that the toilets in this washroom aren’t self-flushing like the urinals. If I still felt any fear from the presence of Templeton Rate, it pales in comparison to my discoveries in here. Some foul graffiti is written and carved into the side of the stall. I see an etching of what seems to be a Canadian Goose (Branta canadensis) sodomizing some poor cartoon man, and it offends and confuses me even beyond the scientific implausibility of it all.

If this bathroom had been telling this story, it would be scratched inside the stall with accompanying pictures.

I reluctantly try the next stall over, and although Templeton is not in there either, I am relieved to find that it’s relatively clean.

I turn to face the mirror for a moment, before enough of my strength returns that I can get out of here. There’s a little white sticker on the bottom corner of the mirror that reads:

 Our Restrooms Have Been Professionally Sanitized

By Sani-Squad For Your Health And Well-Being.

There’s a toll-free number in the corner for this Sani-Squad, and I almost feel like jotting it down so I can call to report a missing employee, since he obviously hasn’t been anywhere around these parts for some time now. However, getting out of this washroom as fast as I can and breathing in the air of that dirty diner is of much greater importance to me right now than logging a complaint to some poorly-run sanitation company.

I come back out hoping to find Templeton waiting for me at the counter. Maybe we somehow missed one another in the bathroom? Maybe he was using the women’s washroom? Maybe he went out to pee in the alley rather than use that filth-infested men’s room? I wouldn’t blame him one bit. But the only thing waiting for me is my bill. And his. And two complementary pieces of sugary pink gum.

I have no idea why I paid for Templeton’s meal as well as mine, and I have even less of a clue as to why I bothered taking the gum with me when I left The Strangest Feeling.

NEXT CHAPTER

Molt

Molt

MOLT follows ISABELLE DONHELLE, an ornithology professor living in Boston. The story is told through the first-person narrative, as Isabelle explores her own past, questioning why she has always been afraid of change, and just how she’s come to find herself falling for a troubled student of hers. But TEMPLETON RATE is not really a student at Hawthorne University and the truth is that he has much bigger plans for Isabelle than she could ever suspect.

For reasons that are not quite selfish and not entirely altruistic, Templeton dreams of changing the world. As the mystery unravels, Isabelle will be faced with such obstacles as an affair with a co-worker, a house fire in Salem, an impromptu trip to Quebec, strange laboratory experiments, a murder investigation and hundreds of rare and exotic birds taking over the streets of Massachusetts before finally facing Templeton in a chilling finale on the rooftop of Boston’s Prudential Tower. And once there, Isabelle will finally realize that change, whether desired or not, is always more complicated after the fact.

Readers will enjoy a clever mix of suspense, dark humor and science, and will cheer for Isabelle as she falls just far enough to learn everything she can about the mysterious Templeton Rate.

At times a frighteningly dark, deceptive story while at others a heavy character study, MOLT is a 94,000-word work of mystery fiction.