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.
Granny doesn’t leave her granddaughter’s side much, but that suits Missy. As soon as there’s no risk for Taïga’s life anymore, her great aunt is back to her usual, selfish, airhead self. 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.
To keep Granny off her back, Missy suggests that Taïga moves into Granny’s room. Like that her elder sister can keep an eye on her precious grandchild around the clock, and Missy will be able to come and go and live almost as free as before her stern sister moved in. A part from the darn dog, of course. Tramp needs attending to and as Granny spends so much time in her room, or in the basement making elixirs, it falls upon Missy to let him out and feed him. She quickly realizes that the dog is a good excuse to leave the house without explanations, and she usually ties him to a tree in the forest while she takes the bus to the observatory…
Granny watches nervously for signs of potion poisoning as Taïga slowly recuperates from her little “apple mishap”, as Missy calls it.
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, often throwing up and having to drink the awful potion again.
There is 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 one Saturday morning in March asks her to run some errands in town, Taïga is 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 has 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 teenage 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 has time to process the question. Everybody in her class are going, but Taïga hasn’t even asked Granny yet. How could she? She doesn’t even know when she will start school again.
‘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 explaining about her encounter outside the grocery and how there is an 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 and Leann decides they have to go, too.
‘Hurry, we’ll miss the bus!’ Mitchell urges them on, watching the yellow American style school bus arrive to pick them up.
‘I’m sure they won’t leave without us,’ Jen grumbles, but she hastens her pace anyway when Taïga and Leann set into a run towards the bathroom. Mitchell follows them, just to make sure they’ll get back to the bus all right.
They make it in time and are even among the first to board the bus. All the kids are excited, going somewhere by bus is out of the ordinary. They politely salute the driver but Leann salutes him by his first name.
The driver nods and smiles, ‘Bună, Leanna! Take the first seats – I kept them for you,’ he says in a thick Romanian accent. Winking at Taïga he adds in Romanian, ‘Your English friend gets sick otherwise.’
‘She’s American, Dumitru,’ Leann giggles. ‘I bet she didn’t understand a word! Did you?’ she adds to Taïga.
Taïga shakes her head.
The young driver laughs. ‘She gets sick. Like this, ugh.’
He mimes throwing up and Taïga hesitates. Sitting next to someone throwing up is not her idea of fun, especially after her own long convalescence. But Leann is already sitting down by the window, tapping her hand encouragingly on the empty seat next to her. ‘You can have the window seat, you’ll see everything!’ She lets Taïga step over her legs and slide onto the old red vinyl seat next to her.
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. ‘Bună, Crina,’ he says pointedly but Jen just tries to stare him down. He stares back, making a movement with his head towards the seats behind him. ‘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,’ Leann urges.
‘Well… just don’t look, OK? She won’t get ill, she’s just trying to switch seats with you. And these are the best – you’ll see everything better than the others. You’ve never been to the observatory and it’s your first day back at school so I think you deserve the best seat.’
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? ‘What’s up with her being so rude?’ she asks.
‘I don’t know. Maybe it’s because we always sit together. Did you know he’s Jen’s uncle? The driver. Or cousin,’ she adds thoughtfully. ‘Anyway, they are family some way or another…’
Taïga shrugs. ‘Whatever…’ She thinks it doesn’t excuse her friend from being sulking and rude to him.
Fascinating Facts Observatory is situated deep in the forest, high up in the mountains that surround Vulturu. Spring has not reached the site yet and the trees and bushes are ghostly pale and devoid of leaves.
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 parents just dug up.
‘Hey… look!’ Leann tugs at Taïga’s arm and points at something through the window across the aisle. Taïga has to lean over her friend to glimpse the first sight of the observatory from above as they ride the bus high on the opposite mountainside. Just a glimpse, and then it is gone. The bus is slowing down, maneuvering into a makeshift parking lot out of sight of the building situated on the edge of the mountain, where the huge telescope protruding from the dome shaped roof has an unobstructed view of the sky.
‘Can’t the bus go all the way up there?’
‘No, we’ll park here, and continue on foot. Miss Hasdeu wants to give us a chance to watch the building from afar, first.’
The bus has stopped and Miss Hasdeu calls for attention. ‘We will walk from here. I want you to write down in your notebooks your first impressions of the edifice,’ she says in Romanian.
Leann quickly translates as the kids troop out of the bus and gather next to their teacher.
After a few minutes’ walk on a well-worn path, the forest open up on the observatory and Taïga draws her breath.
‘What do you think?’ Leann asks.
‘It’s… Err…Impressive… And creepy!’
‘Isn’t it?’ Leann says proudly, almost as if she was the architect of the impressive steampunk looking observatory. ‘It dates back from the 19th century, and was built by err… Jules Verne.’
‘Really? I thought he was an author,’ Taïga says, thinking about the book about a monster submarine Granny had read for her during her convalescence, with Captain Nemo in it.
‘Whatever. I wouldn’t like to be stuck here in a thunderstorm,’ Leann adds thoughtfully.
Taïga nods. ‘I wouldn’t be surprised if Dr. Frankenstein’s our guide.’
‘Dr. Frankenstein. He was a mad scientist who-’
The class has started on their way down and Taïga adds, ‘Just forget it, Leann. I’ll explain later.’
The visit is interesting but uncanny. Some parts are very futuristic with modern scientific computers and others look like some ameliorated interior of Nautilus. At least as Taïga imagined what Nautilus looked like.
Dr. Franke overhears her comments and drily corrects her. ‘Columbia would be more appropriate, young lady.’
Taïga blushes and decides to ask her grandmother what Columbia is, knowing Dr. Franke did not refer to a country or a famous University.
There is an electroscope from the 17th century and after the explanation about how this ancestor to television work, they all get a shot at looking through the huge telescope. Jen saw a shooting star, but Dr. Franke insisted that it was only a small rock speeding through the atmosphere, making all the kids grimace with disappointment.
Taïga listens carefully, loving the visit but Dr. Franke makes her uneasy. Especially as they run into Missy, looking all guilty and blushing furiously in front of all her classmates. She could swear the professor 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 a teen who is looking all important with a binder under her 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. Self-consciously she avoids looking at the camp leaders who are taking stock of the food before it is charged onto the two buses. Heart beating fast, she continues to the bathroom to retrieve the much needed paper towels.
The boy she ran into at the supermarket, Toma Balcescu, watches her scurrying past. ‘She’s a funny one, always running,’ he chuckles, loading two huge bags with hot dog buns into a cardboard box marked “Păstrăv”, trout.
‘Are you sure two hundred are enough for forty-eight hungry kids?’ the tall girl next to him asks, checking out the boxes filled with food.
‘I guess so. It did last year…’
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 had been as well stocked as usual. The toilets in the canteen aren’t locked, and Taïga pushes open the doors, one after the other. But 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 instead and helps the monitors load them onto the bus.
Toma greets them as they board. ‘I’m Toma Balcescu. I’m your Camp Counselor.’
They high five him as they get onto the bus, joining the other kids in shouting and pushing each other joyously.
‘Easter Camp, here we come!’
The two buses, filled with laughing, singing, screaming and puking kids, take off towards the Hasmasul Mare Mountains and the shores of Lacul Rosu – the Red Lake.
Five hours later, after driving on a winding road through the breathtaking Bicazului Gorges – the most spectacular road pass in Romania, bordered by souvenir merchants – 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 get some help with unloading the buses. Taïga’s group is directed to a spot by the shore with the folding 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,’ she says, ‘and not because of the cold!’
Three pairs of eyes turn 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.’
Jen shrugs. ‘Great! I’ll help him too!’
Taïga and Leann look at each other, and start giggling.
As on cue, Toma shows up on the path leading down to the shore. Gesturing for them to join him he calls out, ‘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 plentiful. Taïga refuses to put a living bait on the hook and as a result she mostly watches the other kids catch some fairly big, spotted fish.
Finally her bobber starts to jerk and disappear below the surface of the dark water, and excited she hauls in her catch.
‘Are you sure we can eat this?’ Taïga is doubtful. She holds up a tiny, silver glittering fish.
‘Don’t ask me,’ Mitchell says. ‘I’ve never gone fishing in my whole life! But it doesn’t look like ours, though…’
She decides it is way too small to be eaten and throws it back into the dark water again. When Toma comes to check on them a little later, they have all caught a suitably sized fish, even she.
Toma explains that the spotted fish is called trout, “Păstrăv”, just like their group. He helps them clean their catch and they barbecue large slices of the salmon-like fish over an open fire pit.
‘Hey, try to peel off the skin first,’ Toma stops Taïga as she raises the grilled fish to her mouth. She blushes when the other kids laugh, trying to peel off the skin without burning her sensible fingers. Soon they are all detaching parts of tasty fish meat, passing a sliced lemon around. Even Jen eats without grumbling.
‘Why is it called the Red Lake?’ Mitch asks. ‘The Black Lake would be more fitting, looking at the water…’
‘And what about right now?’ Toma gestures behind him with his head and all four kids look out over the blood red water.
‘That’s just the sunset,’ Mitch says. ‘The sky is just as red.’
The others nod and hum in agreement.
‘OK. You’re right. But the water is sometimes colored all red during daytime, too, because of what happened here more than a hundred years ago,’ Toma says, looking serious. ‘Something that gave it the name “Killer Lake”.
He has their attention once more, and he continues in a low voice. ‘There have not always been a lake here. The slopes by the river were covered in forest – pine and spruce, oak, maple and birch. Right over there was a little village.’ He gestures out over the still, blood red water. ‘In 1838, there was an earthquake and the slope collapsed, burying the village and killing the villagers and their stock. There was so much blood in the water you can guess why it has been called the Red Lake since.’
‘Or the Killer Lake,’ Leann adds gloomily.
‘Nonsense! That was almost 180 years ago. The blood should have been washed away since,’ Mitch says.
Jen leans back, waving her hands dismissively. ‘That’s just a tale, everybody knows the color has something to do with the Red Creek. Don’t you remember? We talked about it last year with Mr. Vladimirescu. There’s iron in the river. Like rust.’
‘Iron oxides and hydroxides,’ Toma says. ‘But what about the tombstones in the water?’
‘What tombstones?’ Taïga asks.
‘You can’t see them from here, but if the weather is all right during the week, we’ll canoe out and have a look. Don’t worry, they are only tree stumps turned into stone,’ he adds when he sees Taïga’s worried expression.
‘Creepy nevertheless,’ she says.
They continue roasting their fish in silence for a while, until Jen clears her throat. ‘What about a real horror story? Something that happened here.’
‘Yeah. Like the White Lady and such!’
Toma looks at them with an amused expression. ‘Haven’t 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…’
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,’ Toma continues.
‘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 stare at her with disapproval, but fall silent again as Toma continues the story.
‘This particular morning he was alone as usual. Suddenly his board hit something! It went up in the air, and-’ He mimes the movement with a large gesture.
‘-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 him. ‘Shhhh… What was it?’
‘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?’
Nobody answers but their eyes flick nervously towards the lake.
Toma continues in a gravelly voice, ‘Ever since, 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!’
The kids gasp and he laughs. ‘Time to tuck in.’ He pushes back his chair. ‘Where’s my pocket light? Must have left it in the tent. Just stay where you are, I’ll be right back.’
The crackling of the fire and the sound of distant waves breaking in towards the shore is the only sound to be heard when Toma has left.
‘Maybe we should put out the fire?’ Taïga asks.
‘I guess Toma will take care of that when he gets back,’ Jen says over her shoulder.
‘Where are you going? He told us to wait here,’ Leann says.
‘Really? You want to stay here in the dark getting murdered by some psychopath freak, go ahead.’
‘No need getting all dramatic, Jen.’
‘So where is he?’
‘Over there, by the tents.’ Mitchell points to the cluster of tents. They can see their camp leader emerge from his tent, shaking life into a pocket light.
Taïga shudders. ‘I’m definitely not going swimming tomorrow…’
‘Me neither,’ Leann adds, and Jen nods morosely 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 and starting a dispute.
‘Can you tell us another story?’ Leann peeps.
‘Nup. It’s time to go to bed. You’ll have to wait until tomorrow night. See, the others are already in their tents.’ The pocket light fades and dies. He shakes it, but it doesn’t work. ‘E! Darn lamp!’
Taïga closes her eyes, concentrating on the batteries. The lamp flickers and the beam stabilizes.
‘Ura… Just a bad connection! OK… C’mon.’
Every night after that first evening, 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 generally 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. Still wearing her warm, fleece lined knitted pajamas, she sneaks out of her tent 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 but overcast the whole week, and this morning is no exception. The sun is struggling to break through the usual grey haze without success.
Toma has decided that they should go canoeing anyway. Better start out in the morning, he thinks. If the weather follows the same pattern as the days before, they are enticed to some rain later on. He walks down to where and old rowing boat is attached, deciding it is a good place to launch the canoes into the lake. The water is as usual a dark mirror. No waves. He tries the water with his hand and it is decidedly cold, but then again, nothing says the canoes will overturn. He returns to give Adriana a hand with the substantial breakfast they serve every morning. The kids have gradually gotten used to the pickled meat, rustic bread and greenery served instead of their usual cereals.
He is a little intimidated by Adriana, who is one year older than he is, and who he thinks is extremely pretty.
Their groups are already up and queuing for breakfast. Adriana is barbecuing smoked sausages and Taïga puts hers between two slices of bread, adds some feta cheese and sliced tomatoes and balances her makeshift hot/dog sandwich over towards where Mitchell is standing alone watching the lake.
They eat in silence, sitting together and watching the sun rise behind the mountains, the misty waters going from black to a shade of grey matching the bleak sky.
‘I’m thirsty. Do you think it’s too late to get some orange juice?’
They both scramble to their feet and head back towards the camp. Taïga throws a last glance at the lake but 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 still water.
‘Are you sure you didn’t see anything, Mitch?’
He turns on his heels and continues towards the camp where Toma and Adriana are starting to clean up and where their friends are playing “London Bridge”.
‘Are you coming or not? Toma said we’re going canoeing this morning.’
‘Yeah. Sure.’ She hastens after Mitchell, not wanting to be left alone so close to the dark water.
An hour later they are all equipped with snugly fitted life jackets and funny rubber shoes, listening to Toma explain the basics of canoeing. He’s holding a paddle showing them the right grip and how to use it. They will ride two in each canoe but as they are nine one of the canoes will take three persons. Everybody pair up, and Mitchell finds himself with Adriana and Toma. Taïga is a little upset that Jen and Leann immediately picked each other. She doesn’t know Teofila, the girl she will paddle with, very well. The other girl in her group had to go back home because she fell ill, so she has hung out with Leann, Jen and Taïga as much as possible, and she seems both kind and fun. Teofila doesn’t want to steer the canoe, so she volunteers as bowman. Taïga doesn’t mind. After all, she’ll have the important role of steering and of telling when to switch sides with the paddle. But she’s a little worried that as they will launch from the shore she might fall into the water when she tries to push off the canoe. She doesn’t want to make a fool of herself in front of everybody.
She’s happy to discover that she didn’t need to worry. Toma and Adriana make sure all the kids are safely installed before they push the long narrow boats into the water and get into their own.
It takes a little while getting synchronized. The three canoes with the kids veer and flail. Florin and Mihai crash into Taïga and Teofila on purpose, laughing like madmen. Toma lectures them and they calm down some, telling the girls they will be the first to set eyes on the famous “tombstones” they are out to discover.
‘Don’t worry,’ Teofila says in Romanian to Taïga. ‘I’ve got very good eyes! We’ll win, you’ll see!’ Taïga doesn’t understand the words, but she gets the meaning as Teofila points with her fingers at her eyes and then towards the lake.
Toma and Adriana have paddled before and quickly outdistances the children. Mitchell is bowman, proudly paddling as fast as he can.
‘We’ll never catch up.’
‘Stop talking and paddle.’
‘What the heck!?!’
A flashy yellow speedboat with some young people on board is slaloming past the little group, veering dangerously close. They whoop and whistle, laughing at Toma and Adriana who are screaming at them while hurriedly trying to paddle back to the three canoes with the panicked children. The speedboat circles, creating waves that ripple towards the small boats with the screaming children. Teofila loses her paddle and when she bends over to pick it up, their canoe is hit by a wave and topples over. Taïga swallows water, flailing with her arms in the cold water. Luckily there is the life jacket that keeps her afloat. She looks wildly around, screaming for help but only seeing that the other canoes are also overturned. There is no sign of the speedboat anymore, but she can see Toma and Adriana approaching. Teofila is floating next to her, her face pale and her lips blue. She makes some movements with her arms to get closer to Taïga who meets her halfway in the clumsy lifejacket. They are joined by Jen, Leann, Mihai and Florin who are spluttering with chattering teeth.
Toma jumps into the water. He helps Teofila first, then Jen and Leann. After Florin is hauled into the canoe, it lays dangerously low in the water and there is no more room for Taïga and Mihai.
‘I’m OK,’ Mihai says bravely, trying to smile with his stiff blue lips. ‘I can swim.’
‘What about you?’ Toma threads water next to Taïga who just nods, not daring to open her mouth because of her chattering teeth.
‘OK. It’s just about 30 meters to the shore. I will be right behind you.’
Taïga doesn’t know how long 30 meters is, but the shore seems close enough. She’s more worried about what could be lurking underneath in the impenetrable water. She knows it’s just a lake but images of sharks and even more terrifying deep sea monsters flashes through her head, making her swim faster. Toma reassures them that they will soon be able to walk ashore, the lake is only 9.7 meters at its deepest. The water is really cold, but after a while they get used to it. She concentrates on moving forward with the cumbersome life jacket and after what seems like an eternity, they get out of the water, right behind the canoe.
Toma and Adriana decide it is more prudent to continue on foot, walking in line along the shore the few hundred meters back to their camp. The sun decides to finally break through the clouds, warming the freezing kids who keep their spirits up and are talking excitedly about their adventure, not realizing how badly it could have ended. Toma brings up the rear, teeth clattering and mumbling about rich kids not respecting anything.
After fueling up on hot chocolate and cookies, the spirits are back to normal again. Toma calls the society who let them the canoes to come and pick them up – they can still see them floating around upside down – and then he organizes some quiet boarding games.
The next day, however, the sun blazes warm over the camp and the kids are aching to play. Toma and Adriana hand out T-shirts to the two groups – yellow and turquoise – and they meet up for a ballgame on the empty space between the camp and the shore.
Toma tries to impress Adriana by twirling the ball on his index finger, but when she stops next to him in her fancy Adidas sports outfit, flashing a flat stomach and very low riding pants, the ball falls to the ground and bounces slowly away. Toma closes his gaping mouth and stammering chases after it.
Blushing he avoids looking at her while he quickly explains the rules to the kids. Adriana blows the whistle and they are off playing and to his surprise, his cute co-leader starts flirting with him.
The whole day is spent playing games. After the initial ball game, they start on special Romanian games. Some are difficult and some are ridiculous, making everyone fall about giggling. At first Taïga is very self-conscious, but after a while she’s comfortable enough to participate in all the games.
The kids go to bed that night filled with optimism about the next day’s Easter Games, which will have apple bobbing and a hot dog contest as well as some athletic games, such as a mini marathon and a somersault race.
They trek over to the Salmon group’s campsite early the next morning, singing all the way. The other ten groups are already there, welcoming them. The teams are wearing T-shirts in different colors and the campground looks like a happy rainbow to Taïga.
They all participate in the mini Marathon, the other competitions are voluntary and need at least one participant from each group. Taïga finishes fourth, but Jen gives up and Leann keeps her company, walking to the finish line. Their general score is not that good.
Taïga signs up for leapfrog and has a great time, flying over the bent backs, collecting a third place after Mihai and a girl from the orange team.
She is also supposed to take part in the apple bobbing contest. She gets as far as to the old tub filled with red apples, but when she sets eye on the glossy fruits her stomach turns and she can’t go through with it.
Mitchell feels he’s up to the hotdog contest, having avoided breakfast on purpose. He wins, but has a stomach ache the rest of the day that keeps him from taking part in anything except cheering. Jen and Leann participate in the three-legged race, having walked side by side holding on to each other and matching their strides during the walk over to the Easter Games’ site, imagining their legs strapped together. Practice makes perfect and they complete the race, running without falling over and winning easily.
The last competition after the somersault race is the wheelbarrow race. Taïga and Jen almost win but Jen gets excited and tries to push her “wheelbarrow” too fast. Taïga stumbles and falls headfirst, hurting her chin. Upset, Jen reaches out with her foot to make their rivals fall, too, and they are disqualified.
After a whole day of competing, the Salmon group is declared winner. The Trouts are fourth or fifth but it doesn’t matter as they all get medals anyway. They have grilled chicken for lunch and around four, right before they trek back to their own camp, they eat slices of oranges and apples, almond cookies and Easter buns. Toma and Adriana are walking together, holding hands when they think the kids don’t look.
‘Who’s doing the dishes today?’ Adriana asks innocently, knowing full well the dishes were made before they left the camp in the morning.
‘Not me!’ Jen immediately says.
‘Me neither!’ Mitchell joins her.
‘There’s only one way to find out.’ Toma says.
Eight pairs of eyes look questioningly at him. ‘Pillowfight!’ he shouts, setting off towards his tent. ‘Losers clean the dishes!’
It doesn’t take long before all of them are all equipped with pillows, happily pounding away at each other!
‘You can’t touch me! You can’t touch me!’ Taïga teases Leann who doesn’t wait to answer with a well-adjusted punch with her pillow.
‘Ouch!’ Taïga doubles over when Leann aims another punch right at her stomach.
‘See!?! Gotcha! Hahahahahahahaha!’ Leann is laughing her head off, but Toma is coming to her rescue.
‘Take this, kiddo!’
They play until there are feathers flying everywhere, covering the ground like snow.
‘Help us clean up and then we’ll make pancakes over the fire. What do you say?’ Adrianna grins at them.
‘Yay! Pancakes!’ They throw their pillows, or what is left of them, back into their tents and fetches a big plastic bag. It goes without saying that collecting the feathers brings on a lot of playing around.
Taïga looks around her. ‘Where’s Mitchell?’
‘Yeah, where is he?’
‘He’s probably sulking somewhere as he didn’t want to play with us,’ Florin ventures.
‘I can see him over there! I’ll go get him.’ Leann runs off.
Mitchell is sulking. He didn’t want to participate in the pillow fight, but at the same time he wanted his friends to notice and insist a little more… He turns his back on Leann when he sees her coming running towards him.
‘Mitch! C’mon! We’ll make pancakes over the fire!’
Grumpily he lets Leann convince him to join the others by the fire…
The kids are exhausted when it is time to go to bed but 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. The splash was probably just a fish jumping.
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 Leann and Jen. The girls don’t bother with pajamas, falling asleep as soon as their heads hit the now very flat pillows.
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 getting out of the lake, ambling through the camp, growling and grabbing for her through the thin tent walls. 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 is 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.
Nothing… I must have dreamt… But it seemed so real? Better go back to bed again…
When she bends down to unzip the tent she can hear it again. A strange sound, like something scratching… Weird, 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 is not a sleepwalking kid, or a raccoon coming for the trash. Instead he can see Taïga on her knees in front of her tent.
‘What are you doing, Taïga? Have you lost something?’
Startled, Taïga hurries to her feet. 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… And change into PJ’s.’
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 the middle of the night…
Part I – End of Chapter 28