"I should go next door and see what sort of damage they've incurred," Andrew said. Once he'd finally come down off the ladder, he'd paced back and forth, assessing the extent of the tree's encroachment as a permanent part of the architecture of the building. He'd held his face with one hand, rubbing at his chin and jaw worriedly. Lara watched him, waiting.
The coffee shop was located on the corner of an intersection, between one of those trendy restaurants who required their male servers to wear what was essentially formal wear without the jacket and their female servers to wear as little as possible, and one of the campus copy shops. The entry to the shop was situated at the building's horizontal apex; the tree had grown up directly opposite the entry, the main body of its trunk nestled into the shop's far corner as though it had been the most comfortable spot to grow.
Lara shook her head. She couldn't believe she could be so removed from the apparent reality of the situation--a massive tree had grown up inside a coffee shop in...? She didn't actually know how long it had taken to grow, now that she thought about it. It had only been a few days since her interview, and at the time, there had been no sign of plant growth in that corner of the shop.
She could remember that there had been a few very expensive coffee machines there though. Pieces of shiny metal strewn about the shop were their only testament their specialty coffee legacy. One half of the espresso machine was precariously perched in one of the tree's sturdy limbs, which spread out from the trunk to create a verdant canopy over the ruin of the shop. The height of the tree was uncertain, as the leaves and branches obscured the roof from view...but it was a safe bet the tree went all the way up.
And given the damage it had done to the walls and floor, it might have even gone all the way through, although with the temperature being really damn cold, if the tree had punched through the roof, you'd think they'd be feeling a breeze.
It had however, punched through the wall in spots. At least, it had cracked the wood panelling which covered the brick wall behind. It was difficult to say beyond that how far through the branches had penetrated. The floor's marble tile was cracked and in places, shattered where the tree's roots had burrowed downward, seeking...what? Iron pipes to suck the water out of? This was all too mad now that she had time to really take in the tableau before her.
Andrew's voice broke through her reverie. "And I need to check the basement...see if those roots have dug through the pipes...could be flooding..." He was thinking out loud, and now his pacing assumed a sort of indecisive dance; at one moment he was heading for the front door, the next he was going to the back room to the stairs which lead to the basement, the furnace and water pipes.
"I could always check the basement," Lara offered. "I don't know the people next door and they might well...find me a little alarming."
Andrew looked at her. She'd tried hard to dress for success, but when most of your wardrobe is built on a theme of either black, blood red, the Nightmare Before Christmas and goth metal, it's difficult to look professional. She'd tied her hair back with a scarf covered with little Jack Skellington faces, which aside from Jack's pale grinning skull was as black as her hair. Coupled with the pentagram earrings, nose and lip ring, eyes rimmed with heavy mascara and melanin the color of porcelain, she was a better candidate for Most Likely To Be Mistaken For A Corpse than the person you send to check if your commercial property neighbors have had a tree branch smash their bar to smithereens. And Lara knew it.
"Yeah," Andrew said. "You're probably right. Besides...I'm the manager. And owner. Shit."
He did another indecisive pacing dance, finally decided to run into the backroom and grab his jacket, then stormed out the front door, locking it behind him and then heading to the trendy restaurant first. Lara watched him walk out of sight through the tinted glass, then walked over to the shop's glass storefront and closed all the blinds. No sense in someone peeking in and seeing what was going on until they knew what was going on.
What the hell is going on?
Lara stood for a moment, then headed to the back room. The tree had made of mess of this as well--a portion of its trunk had forced the drywall to bend and then break, so that in spots one could see out into the shop. Its branches had ripped gaping holes in the bags of coffee beans and other dry goods. Sugar, coffee beans and grounds all formed a brown and white chiarascuro pattern across the floor. Lara went to the landing to the basement and flicked the light switch for the stairs. Nothing happened.
Not a good sign.
A quick search produced a mag light from one of the storage shelves. She turned it on and went down the stairs.
The flashlight's beam drifted over the odds and ends that had found their way down her through all the years of tenant's who had left junk behind when they vacated. The ones closest to the stairs were coffee related...boxes which had once held disposable cups, coffee beans, and the machines themselves. Further in, there were some pot lights--perhaps it had been a club or pub before? The furnace was running, she could hear it making its machine white noise. Lara ran the beam over it, but saw no trace of the tree or damage.
Then the beam played over the wall beneath the tree and Lara gasped. The roots of the tree had reached all the way to the bottom of the basement and actually had dug into the pipes.
But there was no water spilling out.
"Maybe the pipes are frozen," she said to herself.
"Not a chance sweetheart," a female voice said. "It's hot as hell down here with that furnace. The Tree is drinking."
Lara jerked the flashlight in the direction of the voice and caught a glimpse of an aged hand shielding a face from the glare.
"Not in the eyes!" the woman complained. It was a friendly gripe though. Lara lowered the beam so that the light fell indirectly across the woman's head and shoulders. She lowered her left arm and Lara saw a wizened face, smoke curling up in front of it. A cigarette was burning in the old woman's right hand. She raised it to her lips and took a long, langourous drag. Lara could hear the tobacco crackle as it burned.
"You're not allowed to smoke in here," she said. "It's a public building."
"Stupid ass law," the old woman said. "But if you feel it's your civic duty to report me, then go ahead and call the cops. I doubt they'll be as interested in my cigarette as they will be in the Tree."
"Don't be testy with her Terry," another female voice said, "after all, she's one of us, isn't she?"
"Not yet she isn't," Terry replied. Lara placed her at older than 60, though it was hard to tell in the dark. Her eyes had adjusted to the low light and she could make out two other figures on either side of Terry. The one who had just spoken, on Terry's left, was a heavyset middle aged woman, with jovial asian features. The remaining figure was difficult to make out; from the little Lara could see, it was apparent that she was dark skinned.
"We're forgetting our manners," the asian woman said. "I am called Ima, and you have already met Terry...the silent one is known as Hatima."
"And you...live down here in the basement?" Lara asked.
"We've recently relocated," Terry replied. "We go where the Tree goes."
Lara could literally hear the capital T in front of Tree, the way Terry said it. "You keep mentioning the Tree like this is the only one."
"That's because it is," Ima said.
"So this isn't just some freak ecological occurrence," Lara said, trying to gain clarity.
"It's as natural as any other tree growing," Ima replied. "But this one doesn't grow as often."
"And you magically appear with it?" Lara asked sarcastically.
"That's right," Ima said.
Lara was silent for a moment. "So Andrew doesn't know you're down here..."
"And that's how it should remain," Terry said in a tone that left no room for discussion. "The work we do down here is women's work." She caught a wrinkle in Lara's expression. "I know, it's not a very modern thing to say, but what we do here isn't very modern."
"And what is it you do?" Lara asked.
"What we do," Terry said, indicating all four of them with a sweep of her hand, "Is tend to the roots...and the Well."
"The Well?" Lara looked dubiously at the plumbing.
"The water at the base of the tree is the Well. Don't let appearances fool you Lara, you of all people should know that."
I never told them my name...
"Lara?" Andrew's voice called from the top of the stairs. "Are you still down there?"
Terry placed a finger over her lips and shook her head.
"Yes, I am, and I'll be right up!" Lara called.
"Are the pipes all right?" Andrew asked.
Terry and Ima gave Lara a meaningful nod.
"Everything's perfect down here!" Lara said, starting towards the stairs.
"Come back and see us soon," Terry whispered from the darkness as Lara stepped into the light streaming down from the storage room.
She nodded and said, "I will."