Your hometown in full of strange and fantastic things…
Welcome to Verdun, a working-class neighbourhood in Montreal’s southwest and neighbour to the Centre of High-Energy Physics and Human Advancement — the Loop. The year is 1986 and the various Loops, massive particle accelerators, in Nevada, Sweden, and Montreal have heaped scientific and technological advances on the world. Danger Zone by Kenny Loggins plays on the radio but magnetrine ships drift lazily above the Saint-Lawrence river, sailing on the Earth’s own magnetic field.
Everyday life is dull and unforgiving…
Despite the presence of airships and autonomous self-balancing robots, everyday life for kids in 1986 goes on much as it always has. There’s a biology quiz tomorrow and a bully waits for you outside after discovering your English-Elvish dictionary. Yet stranger things, whether attracted by the constant thrum of the underground Loop or perhaps made by it, are never far away. Verdun sits at crossroads. English and French, numbingly dull and wondrously strange… These are Tales from the Loop.
Steeve Walsh (10) is a computer geek with a bit of an edge. What Steeve lacks in physical coordination he makes up for with a headstrong dedication to mischief — if given the opportunity he will reprogram the scoreboard to track Farts and Sharts at the next hockey game. That said, Steeve is not without pathos. He loves music and has cultivated an eclectic collection of mixtapes (including some of his own midi and chiptune recordings). Unfortunately, he can’t make it among the rockers who smoke down by the waterfront and even the band geeks shun him for his light-up sneakers.
Steeve is also now the step-brother of wannabe mechanic Michel, thanks his mother’s shotgun wedding to local garage owner Jacques Thibault. Although their relationship is fraught, the boys regard each other with unspoken respect for their different skill sets and for putting up with each other’s parent. Steeve can’t resist solving puzzles.
Michel Thibault (13) is as hick as you can get this far from a working farm. He wanders the laneways of the Verdun avenues looking for scrap to build his next project. Michel busies himself with tinkering because his father loves his ‘67 Mustang restoration more than his kid. When Mr. Thibault does seek out Michel, it’s usually to have him do work in the shop (for free) or to distract the loose women who often come by the garage looking for his dad. Michel is rarely seen without his sweet leather jacket, given to him by his uncle and suspected Hell’s Angel, Guy Boucher. The only thing Michel’s dad loves besides his Mustang is carousing and fooling around with prostitutes on Wellington. This means Michel has built a complete directory of Verdun’s women of the night.
William Greenwood (10), better known as Billy, is from the right side of the tracks in nearby Nun’s Island but his heart is dedicated to the wrong side. Billy’s a troublemaker par excellence and is a fast-moving terror on his BMX bike. Billy’s parents are a power couple, his dad working as a lawyer and his mother as a bank manager. Billy should be playing clarinet but instead he spends his summer days hopping fences and putting holes in his expensive clothes to look hardcore.
Billy’s parents don’t understand him and don’t even try. He’s a latch-key kid who just gave his pet hamster a funeral and no one even noticed. Billy struggles at school but intimidates Steeve, who often does Billy’s homework or steals test scores for him. The only adult Billy trusts is Mr. Leblanc, the school janitor — they don’t talk much, but Mr. Leblanc is always willing to share a carton of milk with Billy.
The Mystery so far…
A seagull picks at some trash in the empty lot between Thibault Garage and the scrap shed the kids have made their clubhouse.Within, Michel is stacking a very bald set of tires next to his project junker. Steeve comes in and fiddles with the radio and mutters something about Top-40 fluff; he finally tunes in The Cutting Crew and turns up the volume.
“Will this thing ever run?” asked Steeve, nodding toward the pile of scrap metal.
“Not if you were working on it!” Michel laughed, wiping his hands on his greasy jeans. “I bet you can’t remove one of these old tires.”
Steeve bent down to turn his sneaker lights and replied, “you’re on.”
In the struggle to loosen to rusty lugnuts, Steeve dislocated his thumb and, defeated, he retreated to a stool by the radio to watch bitterly as Michel finished the job.
As Michel finished bolting on the tire, Billy shows up with two flats on his bike.
"I ran through some fat lady's rose bushes. You should have seen her face!" Billy said, contorting his face and sputtering to get a laugh out of the others.
In a surprising show of independence and 10-year-old one-upmanship Billy managed to change both his flat bike tires at the clubhouse after Michel refused to help. With all their teasing done and full summer's day ahead of them, the kids decide to visit the riverfront and bring along a fishing rod to pass the time.
Laying on the dock in the heavy Montreal heat the kids dip hands into the cool water and notice a large group of seagulls circling far overhead. And then they hear something!
“What was that?” Asked Steeve. Without opening his eyes, Michel answers, “what was what?” “Shh—listen!” Billy hissed.
“Corn! Corn! Lucky me.”
The thin, small voice was coming from bushes by the water’s edge. Listening closely and sneaking towards the shoreline, Michel splashed into the water and lept into the bushes. Too slow, Michel closed his hands around empty air as two pigeons took flight and disappeared over the hill leading down to the riverfront.
The seagulls above continued to circle but now the kids could hear the raucous honking.
“Dumb birds,” said Billy, picking up a rock. He threw it skyward and it fell into the river with a plop. Visibly agitated, the seagulls circled lower and lower.
“Get out of here, birds!” Michel yelled up, wet now and embarrassed by his failure. He whipped a stone from where he stood in the bushes and it struck a seagull. The flock burst into squawking and feathers. Several of the birds dove at the Steeve and Bill on the dock and the two younger boys ran for it, Michel close behind, surprised that the birds hadn’t scattered instead.
The seagulls gathered around the fallen bird and didn’t pursue but the kids were already long gone.
“That, that wasn’t right.” Said Steeve, as they all caught the breath by a public drinking fountain. “There is definitely something wrong with those birds.”
“The next bird that comes near me is getting punched, right in the beak!” Billy said, as he threw a few jabs at the air.
Michel laughed. “I dunno, your aim is pretty bad. You couldn’t punch a bird in the beak if it was a toucan!”
Billy punched Michel in the arm and the two started tussling, then Steeve broke in. “Guys, guys, what about that bird guy, Boyd?” He asked. “He used to be on TV Saturdays when I was little — he was always covered in birds.”
Michel and Billy stopped and looked at each other and then at Steeve.
“What?” Steeve asked. “If we want to find out what’s up with those birds we need an expert.”
“Well, how do we find him?” Asked Michel.
Steeve thought for a moment and then answered in a rush. “Mr. Archimedes will know! He’s my biology teacher and he’s always talking about local scientists and how the Loop attracts lots of talent. He doesn’t live far, let’s go.”
With information gleaned from a pleasantly surprised Mr. Archimedes, who wasn’t used to visits from excited students, much less in summertime, the kids struck out for home of Christopher Boyd.
The ornithologist’s house was run down and unwelcoming. The room was covered in bird perches, the windows were dark, and the shutters were broken (and covered in bird shit).
“I guess he’s not a TV star anymore…” Michel remarked.
“You heard the teacher, this guy went crazy, put on a bird suit, and broke both his legs trying to fly.” Bill said, eyeing a lone crow on the roof. It cawed.
“Right…” Steve bent down to shut off his sneaker lights.
“Well then,” Michel said, stepping forward. “Let’s go say hi.”
The door was unlocked and the kids entered into a dark foyer. A narrow flight of stairs ran up the second floor and a dim light cut a bright line beneath a door at the end of the hall. Steeve and Billy followed behind Michel, each to one side. The younger boys urged Michel forward—he wished he brought a wrench from home.
The trio crept slowly toward the light at the end of the hall. The house was quiet, so every step seemed to explode into creaks and groans, stopping the kids in their tracks. They listened for a moment before slowly taking another step. On their was an archway leading into a living room where they could see the barest hints of a couch and a bookcase and a large shape they couldn’t make out in the darkness.
“Hello!” rasped a voice out of the darkness next to them. “Rwaa, hello!”
Michel jumped back, dumping Steeve onto the floor and Billy flailed his arms into something like a karate stance and yelped. Within a giant cage a large parrot opened its wings and preened it’s feathers.
Just then the door at the end of the hall banged open and light spilled out into the narrow hallway. “WHO’S THERE?!”
Scrambling and yelling Michel and Billy picked up Steeve and held him up in front of them. A large bearded man in boxer shorts and a plaid shirt stomped towards them bellowing “WHAT’D YOU DO?!”
“Nothing! Nothing!” “Oh my SHIT— please don’t kill us!” “Birds!”
The kids screamed over each other, huddling together.
The big stopped short and looked down at them. “Birds?” He asked. “What about the birds?” He was trembling.
Michel took the lead. “Are you Christopher Boyd?” The man nodded and Michel continued, a little more informed but just as nervous.
“The birds are acting weird, like, really weird.” Michel continued. “We thought we heard some talking and then these seagulls attacked us after Billy threw a rock—”
“YOU hit it!” Billy said, pushing Michel from behind. Michel started turning around to smack Billy but the lumbering ornithologist spun him around and grabbed Michel by the shoulders.”
“A rock? Did you kill one?” Christopher asked. “The birds won’t forget that.”
Steeve and Billy looked at each other.
The big man shivered and the kids noticed his face and bald head here covered in small cuts. A small bird flew from Christopher’s room and out the open front door. Michel started backing away and pushing Steeve and Billy slowly towards the door; Christopher followed them.
“Why are the birds talking?” Michel asked, still backing away.
“Big birds won’t do it, nope. Too angry. Too hungry.” Christopher muttered. “Small birds maybe. They all talk to me though, always tweeting.”
“Small birds, like pigeons?” Steeve offered, shaking now that it was clear this big man was as wrong as the birds.
“Pigeons?! Yes. They love the north cliff on Nun’s Island.” Christopher’s eyes were unfocused now.”
“The cliffs on Nun’s Island,” Michel repeated, looking at Billy, who gave him a nod. Billy knew the cliffs. “Thanks, Mr. Boyd. We’re gonna go now.” They were at the door.
“Yes,” he said, leaning in to whisper. “Don’t tell them I’m here!” The parrot squawked from inside and Christopher Boyd slammed the door behind them.
* * *
Back at the hideout behind the junkyard the kids resolve to check out the cliffs tomorrow and Billy bikes home across the bridge to Nun’s island.
At home, Billy’s well-to-do parents are relieved to see him.
“Where have you been all day, William?” His mom asked.
“Out.” Billy replied.
“Were you at the park?” His father asked from behind a newspaper?
“No. The parc is for nerds.”
“We’ll you’re staying in tomorrow,” His mom continued. “Animal control found nearly a hundred dead birds at the park down the road. There might be some kind of bird flu going around.”
To be continued…
Read Session Two