Last time on Tales from the Loop: Montreal…
The Sud-Ouest trio of Steve, Michel, and Billy encountered the curious tweets and sharp beaks of some very strange birds.
The group paid a visit to the dark house local ornithologist Christopher Boyd. The big bird-man was sweaty, whether from the humidity or anxiety, the kids couldn’t really tell. But through his rantings, Boyd pointed them towards an uncommon sight: a pigeon nest.
With no time to investigate before the street lights came on, the gang split up and headed home. Once safe inside, Billy got the bad news that he wouldn’t be allowed outside the next day. The reason? CTV News was reporting dozens of birds had been discovered in a park on Nun’s Island, all of them dead.
New kids on the block
Fred Comeau (13) is a friend of Michel just back from summer baseball camp and is much-needed muscle for the group. A natural athlete, Fred steps up to the plate in the summertime and onto the ice in winter. If there’s something that needs to be hit to score points, Fred will hit it, and he’s often seen taking practice swings with his baseball bat, rain or shine.
It would be ungenerous to call Fred a meathead but he does get by on his brawn and good looks. Either way, he usually misspells meat and meet, and for all his natural talent he has trouble keeping up in class. It’s no surprise, considering his hero is older brother Pierre-Alexandre, a semi-pro enforcer in the LHJMQ (#26 for the Shawinigan Cataractes). Fred just loves to win, and sometimes words get in the way.
You haven’t heard of Jessica Michaud-McGarrigle (15) but you will one day. Jessica spends most of her summer at the indoor rink working on her triple-axel and the rest of her time wishing she was Montreal royalty, a real McGarrigle. Jess is high school royalty, however, and dating hometown hero Pierre-Alexandre Comeau (who she expects to be drafted by the Montreal Canadiens). It’s complicated though. Her success at figure skating, as well as her very successful figure, has cursed Jess with the burden of popularity. She carries this burden with all the grace of a 15-year-old with a lipstick collection and still the boys won’t leave her alone and the girls won’t stop talking.
When she’s feeling tortured she’ll visit her aunt Kate (a real McGarrigle, who sings and everything) and pour out her angst while her little cousin Martha practices the piano.
Back to the Mystery...
The Babysitter and the Boys
Michel woke up the next day to Steve standing over him with a toasted peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
“Mom says the phone is for you,” said Steve, taking a bite out the sandwich.
Michel rubbed his eyes and reached for the sheets, but realized he had already kicked them off in the heat of the night. He groaned, “who is it?”
“Dunno.” Steve crunched. “But whoever it is, tell them you’re busy, we have to go check out the cliffs today. We can pick up Billy on the way since he’s already on the island.”
Out in the kitchen, the telephone handset lay on the counter beside an empty jar of peanut butter, which Michel knocked into the trash in frustration.
“Don’t worry, I saved you a Pop Tart,” said Steve, pulling a foil packet out of his shorts pocket. He dropped in the toaster and Michel picked up the handset.
“Allo?” “Michel, I’m back! And I’m batting a 275.” “Fred? Are you home?” “Yeah, I’m home I just—” “Are your parents home?” “Uh, no, no my dad is at work and my mom has some volunteer meeting. Michel, are you ok?” “I’m coming over! Man have I got so much to tell you.” “Alright great, well I’m he—”
Michel slammed the phone into the wall cradle and turned around in time to grab the hot Pop Tart as the toaster ejected it into the air. He picked up a crumpled pair of coveralls out of the hamper and turned to Steve.
“Let’s go. It’s about time I got some help over 5 feet tall.”
Steve didn’t argue and ran out the door behind Michel, as fast as his weak knees could carry him.
* * *
Jessica stood in front of the Greenwoods’ door staring at her reflection and fixing her hair. When the door opened Jessica took off her sunglasses and smiled, “Hi Mrs. Greenwood” she said.
Mrs. Greenwood was dressed for work and ushered Jessica into the large foyer, thanked her again for babysitting on short notice, told her to help herself to anything in the fridge and ran out the door.
Jess walked into the kitchen to find Billy sitting, silent, at the breakfast bar. She put her bag down on the counter and gave a cheery, “Good morning!” Billy just stirred his soggy Frosted Flakes.
“What’s eating you?” asked Jess, frowning.
“I’m not supposed to lea—” he started but was interrupted by a loud knock at the door.
“Huh, let me get that,” said Jess. As she turned to leave it clicked for Billy: his mom had forgotten to tell her that he wasn’t allowed out! He jumped down from the stool and ran into the hall, where his mom had left a detailed note the night before and stuffed it in his pocket. He came up behind Jess at the front door.
Voices were arguing and talking over each other and there was a dull thud followed by the unmistakable “Ow!” of Steve. Then the doorbell rang.
Jess opened the door and the three boys nearly fell inside. The bell continued its long chime as the boys got their balance and Jess announced in her best babysitter voice, “Now just hold on a minute.”
“Billy, are you ready to leave?” “—birds, Jess! The birds!” “Guys, guys, a bunch of them died in the park near here, we—”
“WAIT!” Jess shouted. “Someone explain what’s going on, right now.”
Michel recounted the events of the previous day as the other boys nodded along with the tale. When he had finished, Jess sighed. Fred realized she wasn’t buying it.
“Jess, listen, my brother will be back from training camp soon and I don’t think you want him to know you’ve been spending time with those guys from the (Bantam) football team.”
“That’s totally not true!” she said, fear in her eyes.
“Maybe, but it sounds true enough,” Fred said with a shrug.
“Ugh, what do you guys want? You want me to go looking for birds with you?”
“Well, it’s really Billy we want,” Steve piped up, leaning out from behind the bigger boys.
“—But I’m sure my brother would love to hear about how helpful and kind you are.” Fred cut in.
Jess bit her lip, weighing her options. “Fine, let’s go,” she said, and she pushed them out of the door.
The gang, led by the reluctant Jess, pile into her borrowed Oldsmobile and make for the pigeon nest they learned about from Chris Boyd but first make a detour to the park to see about those dead birds. Along the way, they run into a bit of trouble… Jess rolls a stop along Boulevard Marguerite-Bourgeoys and gets stopped by a fresh-faced motorcycle cop. No stranger to getting pimple-faced guys to do what she likes, Jess flirts her way out of a ticket that would get her parents steamed. Unfortunately, she now has a date with the young recruit.
Later, at the park turned bird cemetery, Michel and Fred distract the Loop personnel and clean-up crew who are bagging the birds so Steve can bag a bird of their own. With a dead bird safely in the trunk, the gang heads to the pigeon nest.
The northern tip of Nun’s Island is separated from the rest of the island by the on-ramp for the Champlain bridge. This isolation makes it a popular hangout for teenagers who frequent to the solitary canteen next to the lookout on the Saint-Lawrence. The canteen parking lot was empty when Jess pull up, though.
The gang piled out and headed down the hill from the lookout to the very edge of the island — and the nest.
“Whoa…” Steve breathed. Before they saw the birds the kids could hear them. A low constant hum of cooing and flapping. Hundreds of pigeons flitted around a rocky outcrop by the water, moving in and out of a dangerous looking structure. The nest looked like a junkyard scrap pile. It should’ve been an impossible project for pigeons.
“They’re working together,” Michel said, pointing to three pigeons wrestling a sheet of chicken wire into a gap in the nest’s defences. “And they don’t seem to want visitors.” “I can get up there,” Jess said suddenly. The boys all looked at her. “What? You think I’m just your chauffeur? I want a closer look.”
Things may have gone differently if Jess hadn’t had an audience but, ever the starlet, she forgot her purpose in her performance. Jess stepped deftly around the debris and was halfway up the nest when a twisted piece of scrap metal cut through the heel of her shoe as she made an unnecessary flourish. She cried out in pain and the hill fell silent.
Jess looked up to see a hundred pairs of eyes fixed on her. Then, a hundred pairs of wings opened and Jess ran for her life on her bloody foot. The cloud of pigeons took flight and wheeled above the hill before descending like sudden rain.
Jess screamed as the birds buffeted her and the boys at the foot of the hill were frozen, except for Steve. He threw off his backpack on pulled out his Panasonic RX boombox. He slid the volume to Max and made some quick adjustments to the EQ and pushed play — and all hell broke loose.
Steve held the stereo above his head as it assaulted the hillside with high-pitched screeches. Jess stumbled over piles of junk and blocked her ears but the head-splitting sound scattered the flight of pigeons just long enough to give her a chance. “C’mon!” yelled Michel, jumping up to help Jess, but Billy and Fred had their eyes closed and their hands over their ears.
Michel ran to meet Jess just as a smaller group of pigeons broke with the flock. “Keep going,” he yelled at Jess, “I’ll distract them!” He spotted a broken broom handle in the junk and took a swinging stance.
There were too many of them. Michel swung wildly but couldn’t be sure he was hitting anything. The pigeons beat their wings in his face and cooed aggressively. Michel just couldn’t scare them off; he couldn’t do it so he broke and ran back down the hill, red-faced and ashamed.
Back at the bottom, the boombox clicked at Steve’s tape finished and the main flock of pigeons seemed to reorganize.
“Let’s get out of here,” said Fred, after seeing Jess’ bloody foot. He pushed Billy and Steve and helped Jess hobble back towards the parking lot. “Michel, c’mon!” Fred shouted back. Michel brought up the rear, glad that no one could see him wipe away his tears.
The birds circled the hilltop nest but didn’t come after the kids. Billy looked back and noticed this and when he looked back at the parking lot he saw someone. “Guys, look!” he said, pointing. There was a girl on a bike holding a pair of binoculars. She was looking at the nest. When she lowered the binoculars she saw the kids approaching the lot and quickly rode off.
“Maybe she knows something about the birds.” Steve offered.
“I think she’s headed towards Cours du Fleuve,” Fred said, after helping Jess into the car. “Can you drive?” he asked her.
“Shut up and get in,” said Jess, grimacing. “It’s just my braking foot.”
After convincing Jess to bandage her foot before driving the gang made their way to the sparse subdivision of Cours du Fleuve. Jess drove slowly around the neighbourhood, which was full of small cottage homes with manicured lawns and bright coloured shutters — except for one.
The house stood out among the well-kept homes. Paint peeled from the front door and an overturned trashcan spilled its contents next to the front porch.
“Well, that’s not weird,” Jess said. “What do you mean?” Fred asked, leaning across the front seat to look out Jess’ window. “That’s super weird.”
Jess rolled her eyes and pushed him back into the passenger seat. She noticed the blinds shift across the street and took the car around the back lane to avoid prying eyes. From behind the house, the kids pressed up against the glass and strained to see in through the back windows.
“The lights are on!” Billy said, pointing. “I think I see someone– There! Something moved inside.” Michel said “That’s the kitchen, probably,” Steve noted. “Let’s go,” Michel said, sliding to driver’s side back door and getting out.
The backyard was fenced in so Michel rattled the back gate; it was locked. Billy came up and punched Michel in the arm and nodded to the fence.
“Gimme a boost,” Billy said, and Michel obliged.
Billy scrambled over the chainlink and landed heavily on the other side. He slid the pin from the latch and lifted it; the gate swung open with a long creak.
Michel and Billy looked at the lighted window and didn’t see any movement. The other kids crept through the gate as Michel and Billy approached the back door. Eager to redeem his failure at the nest, Michel reached out and tried the door.
It was unlocked. Michel entered slowly, Billy peering in just behind him.
The light inside was bright and the creature moved quickly, low to the ground. Michel threw his arms to keep Billy back. Squared up before Michel was an incredibly fat dachshund, baring its teeth and ready to pounce.
“Easy…” Michel said, not moving. Behind him, Billy noticed binoculars on the counter. When Michel took his eyes off the dog he saw an older girl standing in the doorway to the rest of the house. She held a long kitchen knife out in front of her.
“Who are you?” She demanded.
“Whoa, whoa, easy!” Michel said, panic rising. He looked from the knife to the snarling dog and back.
The rest of the gang crowded at the door as the girl stepped up next to the dog, brandishing the knife.
“Get out!” she hissed, making an obvious effort to keep quiet.
Fred pushed in and stood next to Michel. “Calm down, we don’t want any trouble.” He said with his hands up.
“Then get in, et ferme ta geule,” the girl said. She waved them in with the knife and took the dog by the collar. “La porte, the door, please! — Jambon, shush.” The girl's eyes were narrowed and heavy with makeup.
“Why are you here?” She demanded. “Why were you watching us by the north shore?” Fred shot back.
She considered them for a moment, before replying.
“I was watching the birds — they are, bizarre.” “That’s what we’re doing!” Steve cried. “We’re here about the birds!” “Why were you watching the birds?” Fred pressed. “Mon oncle, he studies birds I think. I saw his notes upstairs and then noticed the strange birds…” she trailed off.
Jess, who had been studying the girl’s face, took a step toward her.
“Do you live here with your uncle?” Jess asked. “Hm? Oh no, I don’t live here. I’m just… staying.” The girl said.
“Listen,” Michel cut in. “We think there’s something wrong with the pigeons and seagulls around here. You mentioned your uncle and some notes — can we see them?”
The girl ignored the question and sat down at the kitchen table. Jess drew a chair out slowly and sat down with her. She nodded to the door that led further into the house and the others started making their way from the backdoor.
“How old are you?” Jess asked the girl.
Jess found out she was 16 (“only a year older than me!”) and that her name was Stephanie Tremblay. She had run away from home and shown up at her uncle’s unannounced because she couldn’t be around her step-dad anymore.
Jess reached out and gently touched next to Stephanie’s left eye. Stephanie winced.
“Is it that obvious?” She asked. “Too much eyeliner, not enough foundation.” Jess smiled.
Stephanie noticed Jess’ bloodied sock and rummaged through some drawers to find rubbing alcohol and bandages. While she was cleaning the wound, Fred and Michel had taken Billy and Steve upstairs to look for clues.
The house was a mess. It looked as if it had been left in a hurry and then never cleaned up. There was a sleeping bag on the couch in the living room and all the blinds were shut. A big backpack and a dog bowl sat beside an old TV set so it seemed Stephanie was camped out in the den. Upstairs was dusty and less disturbed.
Passing through the upstairs hall and into the small study, Billy and Steve noticed dozens of small picture frames hanging on the walls. They were all scientists. One pictured a small group in white coats in front of a large sign that read: “Loop Research and Development”. There was also a diploma for Donald Dixon. Stuck to the diploma’s frame was a candid polaroid photo of a woman in conversation — she hadn’t been facing the camera. The same woman was pictured in several other framed photos; Donald was in very few of the pictures.
In the study, Michel and Fred flipped with notebooks and folders full of bird anatomy sketches and blueprints they didn’t understand.
“Obviously this guy was interested in birds,” Fred said. “But what does any of this even mean?” “These are technical blueprints, definitely,” said Michel. “They’re for circuits and electronic chips, though, nothing I’ve ever seen before.”
While the older boys tried to puzzle out what circuit boards had to do with pigeons, Billy and Steve were pulling drawers out of a small desk in the corner. Steve pocketed a shiny Casio pocket calculator before noticing a battered notebook at the bottom of a drawer. It had “Diary” on the cover in brass letters.
Steve opened the diary and skimmed a few entries. There was one about the “great injustice” suffered by someone named Diane, another about Diane’s “prodigious talent” and still more filled with long descriptions of Diane’s eyes and lips. There was also a good deal about birds and miniature microchips.
“Guys,” Steve called. “Guys, guy! I’ve found something good.”
The boys gathered ‘around him and they discovered Donald Dixon was a researcher at the Loop working on circuit miniaturization but then he quit. He left most of the details out of his diary but he got the opportunity to pursue his projects with more freedom and he was really excited about an opportunity to “get closer to her, her mind, yes, but more too.”
“This guy sounds like a dweeb,” Fred said. “But what’s that?” he pointed to the bottom of the page. “It looks like a licence plate number.”
Written in a messy hand was: IEX-4Z32.
“Yeah, but the pattern’s wrong,” Michel said. “Only for personal vehicles,” Steve corrected him. “It could be for something commercial or long-haul trucking.”
Michel shook his head, “how do you know all this shit?” Steve shrugged. “I spend a lot of time in the library, I guess.” “Can you find out what the numbers–” Fred began. “Numbers and letters,” Billy corrected him. “What the numbers and letters mean at the library, so we can find this guy?” Fred finished, rolling his eyes at Billy. “Yeah, the library in Verdun keeps some public archives. It’s all in card catalogues but it’s all there.” Steve said, confident. “Alright then,” Michel said, turning for the door. “Let’s go!”
Downstairs, the boys asked Stephanie if she wanted to come with them to find out once and for all what was up with the birds but Jess shut that down.
“No one can know Stephanie is staying here, not until she’s ready to go home at least.” Stephanie nodded in agreement and thanked them for keeping her secret: she would remain a runaway until her mom agreed to leave her step-dad or until she turned 18, whichever came first.
The sun was sinking fast so everyone agreed to meet at the Verdun Public Library the next day. Parents never say no to a trip to the library, so Billy felt good about his chances of getting out of the house again. Jess took Billy home and, much to her relief, the Greenwoods were staying late at their offices again.
When Michel and Steve got home, Michel’s dad wasn’t there and Steve’s mom was camped in front of the TV with a bottle of wine. Steve took a box of crackers from the pantry and shut himself in his room but Michel didn’t want to be in the house. He put on his leather jacket and went back out.
Michel walked through the pools of streetlamp light along Wellington and ended up where he always ended up when he was upset: Mario’s doughnuts. The shop was nearly empty at this hour, except for two men in a booth drinking coffee and Mario behind the counter.
Mario was a large man. His ample stomach was restrained behind a green apron, dusted with powdered sugar but his thick black moustache framed a perpetual smile. He wiped the formica counter as Michel climbed onto a stool.
“Michel, ma boy,” Maria said, throwing his towel over his shoulder. “It’s a little late for a doughnut, eh?”
Michel shrugged and leaned forward on his elbows. He tapped the counter twice.
“I see,” the baker sighed. He went over to the glass case and pulled out a large maple-glazed. He placed it on a napkin and slid it in front of Michel, who ate it quickly and in silence.
When Michel was done, Mario crossed his arms.
“Thibault, I make excellent doughnuts, the best, eh? But I’m not even sure you tasted it, what’s up?” asked the baker.
“Mario,” Michel sighed. “Do you ever think you just can’t do anything right? Like, you try your hardest and you just can’t?”
Mario threw his head back and laughed. The men in the corner booth looked over and Michel’s face reddened. He squirmed in his seat and whispered, “it’s not funny.”
“Every day, Michel, every day.” Mario finally answered, wiping a tear from his eye.
“What do you mean? Michel asked, confused.
“Every day I feel like the worst baker in the world. I can tell you everything that’s wrong with everything in the shop, Michel.” He said with a wave of his hands.
“But you said your doughnuts are excellent, the best, and they are,” Michel said.
“Yes, it’s true, but do you know how many ugly doughnuts it takes to make a good doughnut? I think I’ve ruined more doughnuts in my life than I’ve served. And forget about a perfect doughnut. I don’t think it exists!”
Michel considered this.
“Look,” continued Mario. He reached under the counter and took out a tray of misshapen lumps. “I fail every day. I try something new and it doesn’t work. I can’t sell these, what would people say about Mario’s Doughnuts if they saw these?”
“Yuck?” offered Michel.
Mario laughed again, “Exactly. But if I don’t move past my screw ups I wouldn’t have any doughnuts. What would people say about Mario’s Doughnuts if there were no maple-glazed, no jam-filled, no chocolate dip with sprinkles?”
Michel nodded. He was beginning to understand.
“Know what else?” Mario leaned in close and whispered. “My mistakes end up tasting pretty good.” He winked at Michel and dumped the tray into a takeaway box. “Share some with your new brother, ya?”
“Thanks, Mario,” Michel said. “I’ll see you around.”
As he headed to the door, Michel overheard the end of the men in the corner’s conversation.
“Yes, I’m telling you, the riverside terrace was overrun this afternoon with gulls and ravens. Bill even told me a girl was hospitalized — she nearly lost an eye, apparently.”
Michel put his doughnuts under his arm and ran into the night. Tomorrow, he was going to do his best.