Discover more from William Shunn’s Main Wish Null
Root: Part I, Chapter 1
In this inaugural chapter of our serial novel, Chicago teen Hasta Veeramachaneni gets her first inklings of something odd about her high school.
For more on this project, please see “This Year a Serial Takes Root.”
Part I: The Street
For a disorienting moment, Hasta thought she was reaching for the wrong locker. She stayed her hand, confused. The neighboring locker had the word DRIFT scratched into the yellow paint, which seemed right. But the number plate on this one read 605, while her locker, she was almost sure, was 506. Wasn’t it? The chaotic noise of the hallway seemed to recede. Was she remembering wrong? Was she even in the right part of the school?
She blinked and shook her head. The babble of voices crashed in on her again. No, this was definitely her locker. 506, clear as day. She spun the combination and whipped the door open, impatient with herself. This was happening way too much lately, these momentary confusions, her eyes playing tricks on her. She wondered if she should see a doctor, but doctors were all idiots. She knew they wouldn’t find anything wrong with her. They never did.
Anyway, as a high-school freshman she was too young to be having strokes, right? Maybe she was a hypochondriac, and this was just exhaustion. Too many late nights doing stupid homework—not to mention playing first-person shooters with Ivan.
Or maybe she was still reeling from yesterday’s kiss with Juan.
Hasta kept a small poster of the boy band Giga Hurts taped up inside her locker, blocking the upper shelf. She didn’t like their music at all—she only had the poster there to hide her shrine to Ganesh from view. The tape had come loose again, though, and she could see the little elephant-headed statue peering out from behind the curled-over corner. She’d have to fix it later. She tried to keep the door half-closed so the shrine wouldn’t be visible as she swapped the math and history books in her backpack for a thick computer programming manual.
In Hinduism, Ganesh was known as Lord of Beginnings, Patron of Letters, Remover of Obstacles. But to Hasta he was just one more obstacle to having friends. Her father insisted she keep the shrine in her locker for spiritual protection, but as far as she could tell it was only protecting her from a normal social life. Gods in your locker might have been acceptable when Raj was a schoolboy in Bangalore, but this was Chicago’s North Side and she was an American. None of the other South Asian kids had shrines at school. Not that she was friends with any of them. They already called her names like “Hasta Pasta” or “Hasta’s Twinkies.” She didn’t need more of that.
She straightened up from zipping her backpack, slung it over her shoulder, and slammed her locker door.
“Hey, H.!” said Ivan, grinning.
Hasta choked down a shriek. Ivan had been hiding behind the door just to startle her. She punched him in the arm.
“You suck,” she said.
Ivan rubbed his arm but didn’t stop smiling. With his flaming orange hair, he loomed above her like an angular white scarecrow. “I didn’t see you at lunch.”
Hasta rolled her eyes and shoved past him. She had sneaked over to the hip little coffee shop across the street for chai tea and a brownie. “I just wanted some time to think.”
The laughing, surly, mindless crowd closed in all around her. She was shorter than average and could only see white shirts and elbows, one of which thunked her in the temple. It took only a moment for Ivan to catch up with her on those stilts he called legs.
“Think about what?” he said, loudly enough that people looked at them.
Hasta sighed, staring straight ahead. He might be her best friend—her only friend, really, since grade school—but sometimes he sure couldn’t tell when she didn’t want to talk.
Juan, she thought. “Stuff,” she said.
“Well, have I got some stuff for you.” Ivan hunched his shoulders, as if that would confer some privacy on their conversation. “This place is even weirder than I thought.”
Though she wasn’t looking at him, she rolled her eyes. “What now? Mr. Edelman’s goldfish are the wrong shade of orange?”
“Hey,” Ivan said, “name me one other person whose eyes are purple like Principal Armisted’s.”
“Elizabeth Taylor,” Hasta said. “And anyway, you’ve never heard of colored contacts?”
Ivan waved her protests aside. “What about the network? When I ping my home servers from here I get a response back, but when I check later at home they never even registered the packets arriving. It’s like Amundsen High’s connected to a whole different Internet.”
Other kids were looking at them, so she grabbed Ivan by the long sleeve of his white T-shirt and dragged him to one side of the hallway. “It’s the firewall,” she said. “You just don’t want to admit that the school district came up with one you don’t understand.”
Ivan made a strangled sound deep in his throat and pinched his temples with one spatulate hand. “Okay, forget the firewall, the principal, and all the weird rules here. Here’s a new one for you. I can’t come up with home addresses for any of the teachers. That should be a piece of cake for me, right? But there’s nothing.”
He was a master hacker, and Hasta had to admit that what he was saying sounded pretty weird, but she wasn’t about to tell him so. She was barely keeping herself together. “Maybe they all live in the tunnels under the school,” she said.
“There are tunnels under the school? Have you seen them? What’s your proof?”
Hasta shook her head in exasperation. “Let’s just get to class, Sherlock,” she said. “I can’t afford another tardy this early in the year.”
Passing near the front office, they had to skirt the makeshift memorial to Adele MacLeod and Brand Banks that had been there since the first day of school. Adele and Brand were two of Amundsen’s academic superstars until the incident early that summer that killed her and left him in a vegetative coma. The official ruling was accidental drift overdose, but rumors persisted of a mutual suicide pact. The memorial consisted of one small table with a yearbook open to a photo of last year’s Chess Club, and one fresh rose laid across it. Though the school administration kept trying to take the memorial down, someone always put it back.
Hasta and Ivan turned down the central hallway that ran to the back of the school. Ivan raised his hand and waved across the heads of the other students. “Hey, Juan!” he called out. “Dude!”
Hasta’s cheeks turned warm. “No, don’t,” she said, grabbing Ivan’s arm.
He looked down in confusion. “Huh? Why not?”
The crowd was thinner now, and Hasta could see Juan Riefkohl straighten up from where he was slouched against a locker talking to one of the cheerleaders in her demeaning red-and-gray uniform.
“I don’t know,” Hasta said, panicked. “Class. Tardy?”
But Juan was already sauntering across the hallway, hands jammed deep in the pockets of his low-riding navy chinos. Hasta was amazed at how good he made the bland school standard of white shirt and dark pants look. His wavy black hair was pulled back in a long ponytail. With a flutter in her stomach Hasta remembered how soft it had felt falling loose against her face.
“’Sup,” Juan said to Ivan, while he gave Hasta’s arm a bump with his hip.
She gritted her teeth and hoped her burning face didn’t set off any sprinklers. She’d been waiting all day for him to say hello, send a text, or acknowledge her in any way. She’d been sitting alone in the stands of the sports stadium after school the day before—watching joggers circle the track and trying to get some story notes jotted down for the video game she and Ivan kept talking about making—when Juan showed up out of nowhere and sat down next to her. She couldn’t remember now what they’d even talked about, but did remember him telling her, “I don’t know what it is, Hasta, but you’re not like any other girl I know.” She remembered that like it was seared into her brain. And she remembered his cool, slim fingers cupping her chin as he kissed her.
Things got a little hazy after that, a little electric, but she did remember his shrug as he said, “Well, see you around,” and sauntered away. She remembered how hard it was to make sense of the notes in her Moleskine. She remembered the painted numbers on the football field seeming almost to spell out some secret message just for her.
“—those labs notes in chem,” Ivan was saying.
“Sure, no prob,” Juan said, but he was giving Hasta a little smile.
Somehow they were all in the stairwell now, climbing to the upper floor as Ivan and Juan discussed their chemistry labs. What’s wrong with me? Hasta wanted to shout, sick to her stomach. When had she become as silly as every other girl in the world? Was one stupid kiss all it took to make her totally lose her head? Why on earth did she want another one?
In the hallway upstairs, Juan nodded to a trio of whispering white girls gathered around a partially open locker. Hasta thought of them as the Drowning Girls because of the bright blue makeup they’d taken to wearing caked all over their faces. One of them, Frida Sandstrom, gave Juan a little wave. Erin Geraghty scowled, tossed something onto the top shelf of the locker, and quickly closed it, while the third girl studied Hasta through narrowed eyes as they passed by. This was Gillian Smart, who had been Hasta’s best friend right up until fifth grade. Hasta still wasn’t sure what had happened between them. Certainly the Gillian of today, with her blonde hair chopped in a shag and the ends dyed blood-red, with her oversized T-shirt and black-rimmed eyes, bore little resemblance to the friend she’d once known.
Hasta broke eye contact in time to see Juan grin and point his finger at Frida, who flinched. Erin grabbed the two other girls by the arms and dragged them away down the hall.
“Dude, you sure have a weird way with girls,” Ivan said.
Juan gave a lazy shrug. Hasta wanted to jump out of her skin.
“At least you seem to be immune, H.,” Ivan said, touching her lightly on the upper arm with his knuckles.
She couldn’t take any more. “See you in class,” she mumbled, rushing off with her eyes firmly planted on the floor.
It was nearly time for the bell, with only a few kids still out in the hallway. Hasta hurried around the next corner and ducked into the girls’ room. Tears burned behind her eyes, threatening to spill out in trails of humiliation. What was wrong with her? She was better than this. And how could Ivan be such a clueless, cruel doofus?
Only one of the stalls seemed to be occupied. Another was a filthy mess. Hasta wrinkled her nose at the half-glimpsed sight, but really she couldn’t smell anything. She dropped her backpack to the floor, snatched a paper towel from a shiny dispenser near the sinks, and blew her nose.
A tampon dispenser hung next to the paper towels. It, too, seemed to mock her, with its stylized pink logo of a woman with hair falling across half her averted face. Hasta’s boobs, such as they were, had been around for a couple of years, but she still hadn’t had her first period. She had tried to talk to her mom about it, and even to the school nurse, but neither of them seemed to find much cause for alarm. Still, it bothered Hasta plenty, since she was neither underweight nor super-athletic—two of the possible explanations she’d gotten from Google. Just one more nagging worry from her tower of neuroses.
Then again, maybe it meant she could have sex with Juan without the risk of getting pregnant . . .
As Hasta was dabbing at her eyes in the mirror, the bell rang in the hall outside. Well, that would be one more demerit from Ms. Deckard. A toilet flushed, and a moment later Kylie Von Davis emerged from the stall. She was tall, Black, and, even with her glasses on, gorgeous. Kylie froze when her eyes locked with Hasta’s in the mirror. She looked like she was about to say something, but she pursed her lips instead, made a disgusted sound, and went to the farthest sink to wash her hands.
Hasta wanted to speak up, to tell Kylie her glasses were cool, or say how sorry she was that Kylie was no longer dating Ivan. But the set of the girl’s shoulders and the rigid angle of her neck told Hasta the time was definitely not right. When Kylie and Ivan first started hanging out, Hasta had been excited, thinking it might be her chance to make an actual girl friend—someone she could compare notes with about body problems, or ask what the deal was with boys like Juan. But Kylie had never acted very friendly, and now all Hasta felt rolling off her were waves of hostility.
As Kylie shook the water off her hands, Hasta slung her backpack over her shoulder and slipped out the door. Ms. Deckard was way easier to face than a girl who hated her for no discernible reason.
Hasta’s cherry-red combat boots echoed in the empty hallway all the way to the corner computer lab. Everyone turned to look as she walked in.
“Ah, Miss Veeramachaneni,” said Ms. Deckard with a pointed glance at the wall clock. She couldn’t have been much older than thirty, but with her hair pulled back in that severe bun she looked more like sixty-five. “Lunch must have been delicious for you to linger over it so long again. Or did you go back for thirds?”
While the class laughed, Hasta stalked to her terminal at the back of the sunlit room, jaw clenched and head down. As she took her seat, she saw Dennis Clegg, the oversized bully who sat behind Ivan, take advantage of the noise to flick Ivan’s ear with his forefinger. Ivan clapped a hand to the side of his head and turned a wounded look toward Hasta.
Great. Now Ivan was upset with her too.
“Now, class,” Ms. Deckard said. “If we can get back to the Game of Life?”
Hasta jiggled her mouse and logged into the terminal at her desk. She navigated quickly to the day’s lecture notes, trying to catch up, but Ms. Deckard’s bland cadence only made her want to nod off. The Game of Life, Hasta read, was an example of something called a “cellular automaton.” Developed by a mathematician named John Horton Conway, it was a two-dimensional grid in which simple rules were used to turn cells on or off, depending on how many neighboring cells were themselves on or off.
Didn’t immediately make sense, but also didn’t sound too hard. She’d figure it out that night doing the homework.
Tuning out the lecture, Hasta let her gaze wander and tried to stay awake. Stress always made her sleepy. She stared out the windows at the early October sky. She stared at the sign above the blackboard proclaiming the classroom’s ridiculous main rule: LEARN FIRST, ASK QUESTIONS LATER. She stared at the other students, only to realize that Gillian Smart, over toward the front of the class, was staring at her. Gillian turned her blue face away again the instant their eyes met, but there was something thoughtful and measuring in her expression for that one split-second of contact. Something raw and miserable, too.
Ms. Deckard was droning on about blinkers and pulsars and gliders. Some kind of pressure was building up in Hasta’s chest. Her hands clenched and unclenched with nervous energy. She realized she was more than just lost in the lecture. She couldn’t see the point of it all.
“So when you code up your playing fields, students,” Ms. Deckard said, “be sure to experiment with different starting configurations. See if you can draw any conclusions about patterns that thrive, patterns that are stable, and patterns that decay.”
And the pressure burst. “But why?” Hasta said aloud.
Ms. Deckard swiveled toward her, her face locking on target like a missile launcher. “Excuse me?”
A collective intake of breath seemed to suck the air out of the room. Everyone was staring at Hasta.
“Why?” she said, throwing her hands into the air. “Why is this an important concept? What are we supposed to learn from this assignment? Are we just making pretty patterns on the screen, or is there a point to it?”
Ivan was mouthing the words, What are you doing?
Ms. Deckard’s lips compressed to a harsh slash. “If you’d been paying attention instead of daydreaming about a fourth slice of pizza, young lady, you’d know that Conway’s Game of Life is a vivid illustration of the way complex, unpredictable systems can sometimes arise from a few simple rules.” She pointed at the sign above the blackboard. “And if you were able to comprehend written English, you’d know why you just earned your latest demerit.”
Hasta felt dizzy, like she was floating away from her body, but she wasn’t going to back down now. “I can read just fine,” she said. “I just don’t understand what kind of teacher won’t let students ask questions.”
The classroom erupted in a hubbub of voices.
“That’s it!” Ms. Deckard said, her face turning red. “Detention! You’re staying after school, Miss Veeramachaneni. And as for the rest of you, you can turn in annotated flowcharts along with your completed program code tomorrow.”
The shouts turned to groans.
“What’s wrong with you, Pasta?” Gillian said, standing up. Her eyes blazed. “Can you not keep your stupid cow mouth shut?”
Ms. Deckard pointed. “Detention for you too, Miss Smart! And you’re forbidden from wearing that hideous blue makeup into my classroom again.”
Gillian flung herself back down in her chair. “Whatever. Fine.”
Hasta pressed her fingers to her temples. Seriously, could this day get any worse? √
Watch for the second of our three free chapters of Root next week, and please consider upgrading to a paid subscription to keep reading all year long!