Gruesome Preserves: Chapter Seven

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Modern embalming techniques have all but wiped out gravedigger plants, pickling the fat cells and neural networks they need to grow. It took Jack years to locate a few viable spores, which he tested on his enemies. He enhanced the final spore, drawing on fifty years of necromancy and plant magic, until he had the perfect weapon against the Witch of Loon Lake.

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Friday morning, Roberto wasn't feeling well so he skipped class and went to the pharmacy. There were all sorts of medications and the pharmacist tried to be helpful, but they had nothing to curb his endless urge to eat. There were diet pills full of caffeine, and imported pills to help you slim, but he wasn't interested in losing weight. He was in great shape from daily runs through the wooded cemetery near campus. Even doubling up on food since September, he had gained only ten pounds. No big deal. What bothered him was the constant hunger.

This persistent desire to eat was physical and mental. It distracted him when he wanted to study, and he lost sleep to a new compulsion for midnight snacks. Last night, rather than going out and buying himself a bag of chips or a sandwich and returning to bed, he had gorged himself on ice cream. He didn't even like sweets, but he had driven to the convenience store, grabbed a bag of corn chips on the way in, and finished them while he foraged in the freezer.

The next thing he knew, he was back in his car hunting for a spoon. He had a big tub of Kawartha Dairy Maple Walnut. He'd never seen such a flavour before, and didn't expect to enjoy anything so sweet, yet he couldn't wait to eat. When he found no utensils in the glove box, he started spooning huge globs of ice cream into his mouth with his fingers. Once he got to the bottom, the last bits melted and he tipped up the container to drink syrupy dregs.

Roberto stood staring at a whole shelf of useless medications in the diet aisle, realizing nothing he saw would do any good. What he needed was real medicine, and consultation with someone who took a holistic view. He had passed Helen's Herbal Healing Shop several times. Now was the moment to check it out.

After a short drive, he arrived at the Healing Shop with renewed optimism, and cookies crumbs on his hands. The lights were off and the door was locked. Odd. It was already ten-thirty in the morning, and the door sign advertised 10:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. He knocked, loudly, and when that didn't work, he shouted:

"Is anybody there?"

There was a crash inside the shop. His first instinct was to back away. The locked door and crash probably meant a robbery was in progress, except the guys on the cross-country team told him Loon Lake didn't have crime. Could somebody be in trouble?

Roberto couldn't force the door so he pulled his fist up into his sleeve and punched through the little window beside it. His heart accelerated, like the final push at the end of a marathon. He reached in through the broken window and unlocked the door, throwing it wide.

"Hello? Everybody okay?" He took a step into the dark shop and let his eyes adjust. In front of him, a long glass case dominated the room. It was the kind used for pastries, but this was no bakery. The case displayed exotic herbs, and shelves lined walls filled with jars of odd preserves. He stepped closer, still unsure where the crash had come from. There was nobody here. He went around the counter to investigate a doorway into the back room. There was a work table, floor-to-ceiling canning jars and, at the far end, a window. Curtains waved inwards and he felt a cold draft. Broken glass glittered on the floor. He had interrupted a break-in.

Roberto was about to back out when he heard a feeble moaning sound, close by. He stepped around the work table and found her, kneeling on the hardwood. The Seňora's thinning white hair was pulled back in a ponytail, and her hands trembled.

She was stuffing handfuls of something into her mouth that dribbled down her chin. It was pinkish, pickled. It looked like a jar of foetal pigs! Her face was twisted into an expression of disgust, and yet she kept shovelling it in, without even pausing to look up. This was worse than his junk food compulsion, but would it be his fate? He looked at her chicken bone frame. She might be eating like a madwoman today, but couldn't have been for very long.

Between mouthfuls she spluttered: "Don't just watch me. Help."

Roberto came up behind her and put his arms through hers. "Let's go." He dragged her, gently, away from the fleshy preserves. She clutched the last bloody morsels to her chest, but when they were almost at the door, he pried them from her fingers and tossed them into the garbage can.

At the door of the shop he said: "Don't worry, Misses. I will take you to the medical centre and they can tell us what is making us both sick."

She didn't say anything. She just nodded her head and let him give her a hand up. She was still chewing furiously, and choking as she tried to swallow everything packed into her mouth.

"Take your time," he said as he led her towards his car.

"He's getting away." She pointed into the forest beside the shop. "Stop him! The town's in danger."

Roberto could see a man in a leather jacket, trotting away unevenly, as if one of his legs were longer than the other. His hair was a flash of white against the trees.

"Run. He's had a hip replacement. You can still catch up. Bring him to me and I'll know what to do with him." She shot Roberto a lopsided smile.

"Are you sure?"

She wobbled and grabbed the side of the car to steady herself. Why did she want to confront her intruder? It made no sense until she turned her pale eyes on him. Helene's eyes were ringed with blue and green, and he felt himself falling into their lacy inner structure. Suddenly, helping her felt as important as breathing.

"Go," she said.

Roberto jogged to the forest at a rate that would easily catch the limping man. Question was, what would he do when he caught him? The old guy wasn't as feeble as the old lady, despite his bad leg. Still, would it be fair for a big strong guy like Roberto to tackle him? He was an old man, and he didn't seem to be carrying off any loot. This was no ordinary robbery. It was confusing. The only certainty was he must catch the man and bring him back for Helene.

Just then the man stopped running and turned to face Roberto. Instead of looking scared, a smile crossed his face. Deliberately, he lifted his hands above his head.

"It's okay," Roberto yelled. "I'm not going to hurt you. I just want to..."

A huge ball of fire came at Roberto. He dove to the ground. He knew by the painful heat that his hair, and the clothes on his back were on fire. Roberto rolled in the damp October leaves until the flames went out. He remained lying on his back, choking on smoke and thanking the Saints he wasn't dead. What kind of burglar hobbles around concealing a flame thrower?

"You're next Helene!" The old guy was still there, shouting from a clearing in the forest. Roberto could see him, but no weapon. How had he attacked like that, empty handed? No time to wonder. The ball of flame had set fire to the damp grass and it was smouldering. He had to get back to the old lady, and put her into the car in case it flared up.

Just then a second ball of flame whizzed past Roberto and into the side of the shop. He turned back to look and saw the open window was gone, replaced by a jagged hole in the charred wooden siding.

Roberto ran but couldn't reach the Seňora in time. Her legs collapsed under her and she dropped, unconscious, onto the parking lot. Seconds later, he leaned over and put a hand to her chest. Her heart was beating, fast but feeble. She was breathing in ragged little gasps. He called for an ambulance, but by the time the dispatcher promised help, the mysterious stranger was long gone.


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