Summer has come and gone, and, apart from Taïga missing the school start, everything is back to normal again in Vulturu. The Zombies have been taken care of, the short hexes on the houses are gone. Granny has spent a couple of hellish months at the local gym, losing some weight, encouraged by her repentant sister.
She’s still extremely bossy and suspicious about almost everything and everyone. She watches like a hawk over her grandchild, who is too weak and haunted by feverish nightmares to start school again when fall comes.
To keep Granny off her back, Missy suggests that Taïga moves into Granny’s room. Like that her sister can keep an eye on her precious grandchild around the clock…
Granny doesn’t leave her granddaughter’s side much, but that suits Missy. She has to wrap up things with Dr. Franke and having her extra-bossy older sister hovering over her at all times is nerve-racking at the least.
Granny watches nervously for signs of potion poisoning as Taïga slowly recuperates from her little “apple mishap”, as Missy calls it. As soon as there’s no risk for Taïga’s life anymore, her great aunt is back to her usual, selfish, airhead self.
Three times a day, Taïga has to take the different elixirs Granny makes for her recovery and the Cure Elixir is especially important. The potion is particularly disgusting but all the ingredients are essential, so Granny has tried to make it more appetizing giving it a nice shade of Taïga’s favorite color, blue.
It still tastes like something extracted from a roadkill, and Taïga dreads taking it.
There’s just the one bottle to finish, but the liquid doesn’t seem to diminish. Hoping to finish off the medicine faster and thus speeding up her recovery, she takes a huge swig directly from the bottle. But to her despair it doesn’t empty fast enough. The thick, disgusting potion does a U-turn on its way to her stomach and she doubles over, seized by cramps.
Missy doesn’t like her new role as a nurse. Or cleaning lady. Or both. If only Taïga could stop vomiting everywhere…
‘Taïga, if you throw up the elixir, you’ll have to start over again. You know that?’ Missy pinches her nose and holds out a paper towel roll.
‘Yes, Missy… but I can’t help it – it tastes like… Yuck!!!’ Taïga grimaces. She will never eat an apple again in her whole life if it means she’ll have to go through this again. Fighting the urge to retch she starts cleaning up after herself.
But the repulsive medicine seem to serve its purpose, and after a few more weeks Taïga is strong enough to start spending some time outside, the fresh air speeding up the healing process. Wrapped in warm blankets, she reads on the porch and her friends come visiting, bringing news from school – and homework. Granny keeps her at home during the whole winter, giving her lessons herself and secretly believing her granddaughter is learning more at home than at school.
When Granny asks her to run some errands in town, Taïga is for once happy to oblige. Buying groceries has never appealed to her, but spending so much time at home is unnerving for the young girl. Singing at the top of her lungs the whole way, she bikes into town to the store. The skies are dull and heavy with rain, but she doesn’t care – she’s just happy to exist. And to make things even better, Granny promised her she could buy some candy! Or chocolate… Maybe there will be enough money left for both!
Exiting the store she literally bumps into a blond boy on his way in. The food scatter on the ground, but the boy quickly helps her to pick everything up, excusing himself in Romanian. He stands up and holds the bag out to her, ‘Poftim (here you are)! I’m Toma. Haven’t I seen you before?’ he continues in Romanian.
‘Err…’ Taïga can’t for her life remember how to answer. Without thinking she blurts out one of the first sentences her friend Leann taught her, ‘Eu sunt prietenul lui Leanne (I’m Leann’s friend).’ Why did I say that? He can’t possibly know who Leann is! Stupid me.
‘Oh, Leann! Ia… e copilul roșcată a cărui părinți fac cercetări despre vampiri?’ Taïga just stares at him and he asks kindly, ‘Pardon. Maybe you don’t speak Romanian. English?’
Taïga nods and he repeats what he just said,’ Is Leann the redhead kid whose parents are doing research about vampires?
Now it’s Taïga who’s staring. ‘You got it!’
He laughs. ‘Well. See you around then.’ He starts to leave, but stops and turns. ‘Hey, I’m one of the activity leaders at the Easter Camp this year. Are you coming? Or maybe you’re not in Clasa IV?’
‘I am, so yeah, sure, I’m coming!’ The words are out of her mouth before she even had time to process the question. Everybody in her class are going, but Taïga hasn’t even asked Granny yet…
‘Pa!’ He winks and vanishes into the shop.
Taïga just stands there with a stupid smile plastered on her face. Easter Camp… Her friends have told her about the annual outing for the Clasa IV and about all the fun they will have camping for a whole week in the Hasmas National Park. She suddenly remembers the documents Leann brought over a couple of weeks ago. What if it’s too late for Granny to sign them!?! She secures the bag on her bike and sets off, hoping Granny won’t say no…
As soon as Taïga gets home she asks Granny if she can go to Easter Camp.
‘You’re not even back to school yet, you’re still convalescing,’ Granny says, frowning. ‘Who told you about the camp?’
Taïga starts to explain about her encounter outside the grocery and how it’s the annual outing for the Clasa IV to celebrate that primary school is over.
‘… and Leann is going, and Mitchell and Jen too! Now I’ve told you everything, can I go? Please?’ Taïga searches Granny’s face for approval.
‘I’ll have to read through the documents first, and contact the other parents about it. But if Jennifer and Leann are authorized, I can’t see why not.’
‘Yay!’ Taïga dances upstairs with Tramp barking excitedly in her wake.
After another couple of weeks, Taïga is finally strong enough to get back to school again. She would never have thought the dreary classes would seem so appealing, but after staying at home for so long she even enjoys Mr. Vladimirescu drone on about the constitution in Civic education. After lunch, her class is taking the bus to the Fascinating Facts Observatory. As usual in Clasa IV, Miss Hasdeu has worked on a science project involving the solar system, and a visit to the old observatory is always appreciated by her pupils.
Jennifer has to use the bathroom first, and Taïga waits for her.
‘Hurry, we’ll miss the bus!’ Leann urges them on.
‘I’m sure they won’t leave without us,’ Jen grumbles, but she hastens her pace anyway when Taïga also sets into a run.
Leann waves to the driver. ‘Bună, Dumitru!’
The driver nods and smiles, ‘Bună, Leanna! Take the first seats – I kept them for you.’ He winks at Taïga. ‘Your friend gets sick otherwise.’
Taïga slides onto the old red vinyl seat next to Leann.
Jen stops next to the driver with her hands on her hips. ‘It’s me who always gets sick, and you know it.’
The driver pops a chewing gum into his mouth and revs up the engine. ‘Sorry. You’d better take a seat somewhere else, Crina.’
Jen starts to answer, but is interrupted by Miss Hasdeu, who advances, counting the pupils. ‘… twenty… two and three. I see everyone’s aboard. Why don’t you take a seat, Crina Elena?’
Still with her arms crossed, Jen sits on a seat across from Taïga and Leann. She sticks her tongue out at the young driver behind his back, making Taïga widen her eyes in shock.
‘Don’t look at her!’
‘Well… just don’t look, OK? She won’t get ill, she’ll just try to switch seats with you. And these are the best – you’ll see everything better than the others and it’s your first day back at school.’
Taïga sighs. She knows Leann only wants what’s best for her, but she also knows that Jen probably will sulk for the rest of the day. Is the panorama view worth it? Definitely.
‘Did you know he’s Jen’s big brother? The driver. Or rather half-brother.’
Taïga shrugs. ‘Whatever…’
Fascinating Facts Observatory is situated deep in the forest, high up in the mountains that surround Vulturu. It takes almost an hour just to drive there, and Taïga is starting to feel a little queasy, trying to fix her gaze on the winding road while listening to Leann drone on about something her parent just had dug up.
‘Hey… look!’ Leann tugs Taïga’s arm and points at something through the window. Taïga has to lean over her friend to glimpse the first sight of the observatory high on the mountainside. The bus is slowing down, maneuvering into a makeshift parking lot.
‘Can the bus go all the way up there?’
‘No, we’ll park here and continue on foot. What do you think?’
‘It’s… Err…Impressive… And creepy!’
‘Isn’t it…’ Leann says proudly, almost as if she had built it. ‘I wouldn’t like to be stuck here in a thunderstorm,’ she adds thoughtfully.
Taïga nods, ‘I wouldn’t be surprised if Dr. Frankenstein’s our guide.’
‘Dr. Frankenstein. He was a mad scientist who… just forget it, Leann. It’s too long to explain!’
The visit was interesting but uncanny. Especially as they ran into Missy, looking all guilty and blushing furiously in front of all her classmates.
They all got a shot at looking through the huge telescope, and Jen saw a shooting star, but Dr. Franke insisted that it was only a small rock speeding through the atmosphere.
Taïga listens carefully, loving the visit but Dr. Franke made her uneasy. She could swear he has some secret research going on during stormy nights, probably with her great aunt urging him on… They would be quite an interesting couple, those two.
The few weeks remaining until the holidays seem never ending, but finally it’s time to go to Easter Camp. The participants from St Andrew’s three Clasa IV are rounded up on the schoolyard before the departure and the open space is filled with children, backpacks and worried parents.
‘Bună!’ A boy from another class stops by Taïga, Mitchell and Jen.
‘Bună, Mihai! Are you in our group?’
‘I don’t know. Which group are you in?’
‘Err… I don’t know. Oh, look! Elena over there is puking! I hope she’s not in our bus…’
‘Yuk.’ They look at the poor girl, wrinkling their noses.
Miss Hasdeu calls out for someone to fetch some paper from the bathroom.
‘I got it!’ Taïga sprints away and almost runs into Toma who’s looking all important with a binder under his arm.
But the schoolyard toilets are locked and after trying all the doors, she continues towards the canteen.
She slides around the corner and almost loses her balance. Heart beating fast she continues to the bathroom to retrieve the much needed paper towels.
Toma watches her scurrying past. ‘She’s a funny one, always running…’ he chuckles, loading two huge bags with hot dog buns. ‘Are you sure two hundred buns are enough for 72 hungry kids?’
The toilets in the canteen aren’t locked, and Taïga pushes open the door, already checking for paper towels.
Hurry hurry hurry…
Of course the distributor is empty – with the onslaught of kids waiting to leave outside it would have been surprising if the bathroom was as well stocked as usual.
The toilets are out of paper too, and not very clean. Taïga gets a roll of paper in the last one and hurries back out again.
Miss Hasdeu reads out the lists, directing the groups to the two buses. Taïga, Jenn and Leann hug and jump around with joy over being in the same group. Mitchell is with them too, and even if he’d love to hug the girls he doesn’t consider it very manly. He grabs their backpacks and helps the monitors load them.
Toma greets them as they board their bus, ‘I’m Toma Balcescu. I’m your Camp Counselor.’
‘Easter Camp, here we come!’
The two buses, filled with laughing, singing, screaming and puking kids, take off towards the shores of Lacul Rosu – the Red Lake.
Five hours later, after driving through the breathtaking Bicazului Gorges – the most spectacular road pass in Romania, they finally arrive at the lake where they are supposed to camp during the coming week. The excited children troop out and start running all over the place while the monitors try to call for attention and help with unloading the buses. Taïga’s group is directed to a spot by the shore with the chairs they are carrying.
‘Do you think we’ll go swimming?’
‘The water looks cold.’
The kids are all talking at the same time but Taïga is thoughtful.
‘I’m not sure I want to go for a swim, and not because of the cold!’
Three pairs of eyes turns towards her.
‘Why?’ Taïga stares towards the horizon at the still sea. ‘It’s too dark. Just look at the water – it’s almost black! God knows what’s lurking beneath…’
They all fall silent, each of them imagining what the dark water could be hiding…
Mitchell breaks the uneasy silence by leaving.
‘Don’t you want to stay and play with us?’ Jen calls after him.
‘No, I’ll go give Toma a hand with the tents.’
Leann stands up. ‘Great! I’ll help him too!’
Taïga and Jen looks at each other, and starts giggling…
As on cue, Toma shows up on the path leading down to the shore. Gesturing for them to join him he calls out, ‘Jen! Leann! Taïga! Mitchell! Come and give me a hand will you?’
The kids scramble to their feet and laughing they chase each other up the steep path.
The young camp counselor has a surprise for the kids – fishing rods!
‘If you want to eat, you have to catch something!’ he says cheerfully, handing out the rods.
The kids look at each other and grimaces. ‘Fish? For dinner?’
‘But I hate fish!’
‘C’mon, Jen. It tastes better when you catch it yourself!’
While the kids are fishing, the activity leaders set up their separate campsites and put away the last things for the next day’s games.
The water may be almost black, but the fish is colorful.
‘Are you sure we can eat this?’ Taïga is doubtful.
‘Don’t ask me,’ Mitchell says. ‘I’ve never gone fishing in my whole life!’
When Toma comes to check on them a little later, even Jen has caught a bright orange fish.
Toma helps them clean their catch and they barbecue large slices of the salmon-like fish over an open fire pit. Even Jen eats without grumbling.
‘Why is it called the Red Lake?’ Taïga asks. ‘The Black Lake would be more fitting, looking at the water…’
Toma looks at her with an amused expression. ‘Have you heard what happened here a couple of years ago?’ He looks expectantly at his little group, shaking their heads between bites.
‘Well…’ Toma clears his throat. ‘There was this guy. A really good windsurfer, a senior…’
Taïga visualizes someone just like Toma windsurfing on the black waters…
‘He came here every weekend as soon as the ice broke. He was really good.’
‘He often came alone, early in the morning. Before the beach got crowded.’
‘Crowded? You must be kidding?’ Taïga splutters.
‘Quiet, Taïga!’ The other kids stares at her with disapproval.
Toma continues. ‘This morning he was alone as usual. Suddenly his board hit something! It went up in the air, and-’
‘-he fell into the ice cold water! Suddenly there was a splash behind him!’ Toma looks expectantly at them.
Mitchell breaks the silence, ‘A fish that jumped? We saw that this afternoon, when we went fishing!’
The girls hush, ‘Shhhh…’
‘No… It was… a SHARK! The poor guy swam for his life, but-’
‘Did he get away?’
‘No… He didn’t. And guess what color the water was?’
‘Since then, at nights with a full moon, you can see a shark following a windsurfer out there – but if you look closer you’ll see that the surfboard is empty!’
Toma pushes back his chair. ‘Where’s my pocket light? Must have left it in the tent. I’ll be right back.’
The sound of distant waves breaking in towards the shore is the only sound to be heard when Toma has left.
Taïga shudders. ‘I’m definitely not going swimming tomorrow…’
‘Me neither,’ Leann adds, and Jen nods gravelly next to her.
‘There are no sharks in a lake. How stupid can you girls be?’ Mitchell snickers, making the girls feel just that.
Toma reappears, saving the girls from answering.
‘Can you tell us another story?’ Leann peeps.
‘Sure. But the pocket light seems to be out of batteries.’ He shakes it, but it doesn’t work. ‘Darn lamp!’
Taïga closes her eyes, concentrating on the batteries. The lamp flickers and the beam stabilizes.
‘Ah… just a bad connection! OK… Here goes.’ He clears his throat. ‘It was a stormy night…’
Every night before going to bed, Toma tells the delighted kids a story about something terrifying that supposedly will keep them awake…
But the day’s activities soon get the best off them -horror stories or not- and before long the giggling and whispering in the tents are replaced by snoring…
Taïga is usually first up in the morning. She sneaks out of her tent with her toilet bag before dawn, while the other kids are still sleeping.
She has learned her lesson – with only one shower working, and a limited supply of hot water, better be the first one to shower, even if it means she has to get up before daybreak.
The weather has been mild the whole week, and this morning the sun is struggling to break through the usual grey haze.
Toma has tried the water and is waving at his group from the shoreline. ‘C’mon! The water’s not that cold!’
Taïga stops and grabs Mitchell’s arm, ‘Mitch, did you see that’
She points towards a distant point in the water. ‘The splash in the water out there…’
Mitchell shades his eyes and squints, ‘Nooo…’
A gush of wind ripples the water.
‘Are you sure you didn’t see anything, Mitch?’
He continues towards Toma and the girls. ‘Are you coming or not?’
‘Listen! We’ll swim over to the Salmon group.’ Toma points towards their camp site. ‘They’re waiting for us to come and have a water balloon fight!’
‘Yay! A water balloon fight!’
The little group changes into swimming gear and gets into the sea. The water is really cold, but after a while they get used to it.
Tom is a good swimmer and quickly outdistances the children.
‘We’ll never catch up.’
‘Stop talking and swim.’
‘What the heck!?!’
A yellow speedboat with some young people on board is slaloming past Toma and the kids, dangerously close. They whoop and whistle, laughing at Toma hurriedly getting everybody out of the water. He decides it’s more prudent to continue on foot, mumbling about rich kids not respecting anything.
They play with the other group until lunch, when they walk back to their own camp.
‘Who’s doing the dishes today?’
‘Not me!’ Jen immediately says.
‘Me neither!’ Mitchell joins her.
‘There’s only one way to find out.’ Toma says.
Four pairs of eyes look questioningly at him. He fumbles under his jacket and draws out a water balloon which he throws at Mitchell.
‘Losers clean the dishes!’
‘Ouch!’ Taïga doubles over when Mitchell aims a water balloon right at her stomach.
‘See!?! Gotcha! Hahahahahahahaha!’ Mitch is laughing his head off, but Toma is coming to her rescue.
‘Take this, Mitch!’ They play until there are no water balloons left.
Taïga looks around her. ‘Where’s Jen?’
‘Yeah, where’s Jen?’
‘She’s probably sulking somewhere as she didn’t want to play with us…’
‘I can see her over there! I’ll go get her.’ Mitchell runs off.
Jen is sulking. She didn’t want to participate in the water balloon fight, but at the same time she wanted her friends to insist a little more… She turns her back on Mitchell when she sees him coming running towards her.
‘Jen! C’mon! We’ll make pancakes over the fire!’
But who’s that, hiding in the bushes? Watching the kids… As the shadows grows longer, the maleficent silhouette vanishes.
That night, they all have a pillow fight.
Taïga lingers outside her tent. Something keeps bothering her…
Maybe it’s the fact that Easter Camp soon will end, only two more nights and three days. She feels a little jumpy…
What was that?
She looks towards the shore line, but there’s no ghost surfer out there. Probably just a fish…
The uneasy feeling keeps troubling her. She takes a last quick glimpse over her shoulder, then she shrugs and hurries inside the tent she shares with Jen.
The night falls on the little camp by Lacul Rosu. The only sound is the breaking of waves against the shoreline and the light snoring emanating from the tents…
Taïga’s sleep is haunted by terrible nightmares – monsters grabbing for her…
A beast, looking like Granny, is crawling out from under her bed, making scratching noises as it hauls itself forward…
Taïga tosses and turns…
Suddenly Taïga’s eyes pop open and she struggles out of her sleeping bag. She bursts out of the tent, looking frantically around her but there’s nothing unusual…
Carefully she zips up the tent door behind her and sneaks around to the backside. She listens for a while, straining to see into the darkness.
Suddenly she can hear it again. A strange sound, like something scratching… And it feels like it comes from the ground. Maybe there’s something trapped under the tent!?! Maybe a poor animal?
Nothing… I must have dreamt… But it seemed so real? Better go back to bed again…
Suddenly there it is all over again. A strange sound, like something scratching… Strange, but it feels like it comes from the ground. Maybe there’s something trapped under the tent!?! Maybe a poor animal?
On the other side of the campground, the earth moves like it tries to swallow someone… or is it the other way around?
Taïga puts her head to the ground to try to see under the tent, she can hear the scratching and scraping echo beneath her but it’s difficult to tell exactly where the sound comes from. Fascinated she puts hear ear against the ground to hear better…
Toma has heard someone moving around, and is sleepily emerging from his tent to make sure it’s not a sleepwalking kid, or a raccoon coming for the trash. Instead he sees Taïga on her knees in front of her tent.
‘What are you doing, Taïga? Have you lost something?’
Startled, Taïga hurries to stand up.
Whispering she tells Toma about the scratching sounds. He gets down on his knees, feeling underneath the tent with his hands to verify there’s no animal trapped under the tent.
‘… there’s nothing to be scared of! And there are no snakes at this time of the year…’ He pats Taïga on her shoulder. ‘You should go back to sleep now…’
He makes sure she returns back to bed before checking that the trash is stacked away out of reach of the wild animals.
Consciously he checks all the tents, but everything seems all right. I forgot to put away the ball… Better take it with me…
Toma returns to his tent, the ball under his arm. Yawning he zips it close behind him.
Let’s hope all the kids stay put in their tents until morning. Can’t have them running around the camp in their pajamas…
Part I – End of Chapter 24