The next day Tonya sat in a packed lecture hall. Professor Rudolph was Tonya's favorite since he invited them to use his first name. His humorous rants against the 'narrow, cabbage-eating island' he emigrated from, immediately endeared him to Tonya. She had grown up in the shadow of Toronto, darling of the Canadian media, and Torontonians who acted like they were from the centre of the universe. Compare that to an Englishman who left legendary London, and moved to Loon Lake by choice. Professor Rudolph not only knew history, but had excellent taste in geography.
As he paced back and forth, lecturing, his stomach protruded over his waistband like a wobbly shelf. While he was teaching Tonya didn't normally notice his weight. She was too busy taking notes or looking up his erudite references on the internet. But eating and weight were major preoccupations since she started dieting that summer. Seeing the way his hips strained his pants, Tonya had to wonder how much heavier he had gotten since September.
Rudolph's lectures unravelled the complicated causes behind historical movements. Right now he was asking students what utopia meant, but Tonya was having trouble following the discussion. Priya kept buzzing her phone with panicky texts. The art installation depended on cameras and lighting, but the Digital Ninjas had changed their minds about loaning equipment overnight.
Tonya texted back: Insurance won't pay if equipment gets stolen out of a tree.
Priya responded: Picky, picky. Besides, who says they have insurance?
Just then Professor Rudolph ducked behind his lectern to grab something. With one quick gesture, and without pausing in his citation from The Communist Manifesto, Doctor Rudolph shoved a complete order of fries into his mouth. He didn't seem to notice how it made him look, as if he'd sprouted a deep-fried anemone.
Poor man, thought Tonya. Returning students told Tonya his wife died that spring. Since then he had gained a lot of weight and stopped going out for beers with his grad students. All that was understandable, but the fry thing was strange, even for an academic.
Her phone vibrated again but Tonya turned it off. It could wait. Professor Rudolph's mouth was empty again and he was talking about utopias and Sir Thomas Moore. From what Tonya could understand, communal living under Moore's strict rules would afford no privacy and no personal possessions, but would be much better than living with her roommate.
Outside the lecture hall, Priya was waiting. "Why weren't you answering my texts? This is a disaster!"
"Halloween isn't 'till the weekend. You have days to figure this out. C'mon, I'll skip my afternoon class and help you find materials."
Priya smiled. "Okay. First we have to steal some lights."
When she saw Tonya's reaction she patted her shoulder. "Kidding, kidding. You're the one who breaks into houses for kicks."
"My own house."
"OK, Ms. Goody Goody, let's check out the hardware store."
# # #
A few hours later, Priya and Tonya were in the forest by the cemetery, scouting out sites for the installation. This was familiar territory for Tonya because Aunt Helen's Herbal Healing Shop was close by.
"What about that tree?" said Priya, pointing to the tallest one, just beyond the wooded cemetery. "Do you think we could climb it?"
"I've been up it a hundred times."
It was the Three-Century Ash, which overlooked the cemetery from the edge of her Aunt Helene's back field. The trunk was so wide a monkey couldn't hug it. Normally, there would be no easy way to climb up to the branches, but with enough long summer days on their hands, kids will find a way.
She led Priya around to the far side of the trunk, where slats of wood were nailed to the bark like ladder rungs. Boy had Aunt Helene given Tonya heck for doing that! And a big long lecture about how it protected their family. While Tonya didn't believe many of the legends about Loon Lake, this was a story on which her parents agreed.
By the time Aunt Helene discovered the rungs, the tree had stopped leaking sap and started to heal, so it was decided not to remove them, for fear of causing more damage.
"My Mom said 'hurting this tree hurts us all,' she told Priya. "As punishment for damaging it, they made me work in my Aunt's store."
"Nah. I never admitted it to my parents, but I loved it. Aunt Helene is a bit crazy, but she's never boring. The shop had clients you never saw in town."
"Still, it looks old," said Priya, looking over the field at the shop. "Bet there's no AC."
"My Aunt would never have something that unnatural, but think of my alternatives. That summer my best friend moved to Toronto. I was bored and lonely, and Aunt Helene was good company."
It gave Tonya a pang of sadness to remember Aunt Helene was in the hospital, with a so-called 'routine' condition nobody would talk about. Did she ingest one of her own concoctions by mistake? Was she keeping a serious ailment secret? It seemed incredible that her parents would move to Toronto for Aunt Helene, but refuse to let Tonya visit, or even tell her where she was being treated.
"Can we walk over to the store? I'd like to meet her." said Priya.
"You'll have to wait. She's in hospital."
"Oh. Sorry to hear that."
"Let me know if you're driving to Toronto some weekend," said Tonya. "If you can take a passenger, I'd love to visit her there." Just as soon as she could figure out which hospital.
# # #
A few years earlier...
Jack Waldock knew it would end in a showdown. As his rival gradually declined in strength, she lost the ability to block his powers, but the stubborn old witch wouldn't admit defeat. With the end of her days approaching, she was desperate to stop him permanently. To prepare, he summoned Len, his ally from the early days.
Len sat on the couch looking tired. Cancerous growths and rough skin marred his papery thin face, which looked even paler against a black leather jacket.
"Can I get you a drink?" asked Jack.
"Got any ginger ale?"
"My stomach can't take the hard stuff anymore."
After that they exchanged flatteries over mugs of tea, each pretending the other had aged well, but their chat soon petered out. Both knew why they were there. Len had been the one to send Jack messages, warning that she'd make a final move.
"What will you do?" Len asked.
"Let her come for me, armed with everything she has. I've learned a few tricks since she settled down to sell vitamins."
"Think you'll win?"
"Not alone. Against powers like hers, I need you." He looked his old friend in the eyes. One eyelid was adroop, and Len's once-bright orbs were cloudy with cataracts. They would fight her head on, once and for all, but their strength was failing too. Good thing he had a backup plan.
# # #
The gravedigger plant grows into the neural pathways of the dead and, if you stray close enough, whispers into the minds of the living. The earliest gravediggers were natural fungi which the Ancients used to protect burial sites, because animals and people would shy away, sensing a presence. In bygone times they were harmless, until some ancient spell caster grafted in a thread of darkness.
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Feeding Frenzy (Watty Award Winner)Mystery / Thriller
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