Discover more from William Shunn’s Main Wish Null
Root: Part I, Chapter 10
Hasta tries to make the best of a bad situation by probing for information, and the night takes a more eventful turn than anyone anticipated.
For more on this project, please see “This Year a Serial Takes Root.”
The brute crammed himself into the backseat with Hasta and pulled the door shut behind him. “Come on, drive already!” he snapped.
The car jolted into motion. “We came to pick her up, is what you told me,” the driver wailed. “You didn’t say anything about kidnapping.”
Hasta huddled against the door, breathing hard and trying to get her bearings. In the moment before the overhead light went off, she’d recognized the two people who’d grabbed her. In the front passenger with the short black hair and the blue face makeup was Erin Geraghty, of Drowning Girls fame. The hulk filling the seat beside her, black knit cap pulled low on his head, was Dennis Clegg. And though Hasta couldn’t see her face, she knew instantly that the girl trying to drive was Frida Sandstrom, another Drowning Girl and one of her chief tormentors from grade school.
“Just shut up and drive,” Dennis said.
Hasta tamped down her first instinct, which was to yell and scream and ask what they wanted with her. After all, the kicking and biting hadn’t helped when Dennis had grabbed her and clamped his hand over her mouth.
Adrenaline made her hands shaky and her skin electric. Her backpack full of wooden blocks was jammed uncomfortably behind her. As she tried to shift it out from behind her with one hand, she tugged at the door handle with the other.
“Ah-ah,” Dennis said, and slapped her. Stars blossomed in her head. “Those are child-locked anyway.” The car jounced hard over a speed hump. “Frida, careful!”
Stinging tears blurred the patches of light from streetlamps that slid through the interior of the car as they turned a corner. Hasta whimpered in pain.
Erin looked over the back of the seat. “This is her, right?”
The car stopped hard, nearly throwing Hasta against the driver’s seat. Frida craned her head around, her red hair like dark blood in the night, her face a blue smear of misery. It was hard to connect this crying girl with the person who’d told everyone in grade school that Hasta’s initials were H.I.V.
“That’s her,” Frida said. They jerked into motion again as Hasta tried to seat herself more securely. “And this is my parent’s car, and I don’t even have my license! I’m gonna be so dead.”
“I swear to God,” said Dennis, “if you don’t shut up and drive, I’ll cut you off for a week. Do you like those dreams?”
“Okay, okay! God, you don’t have to be a jerk about it.”
Gingerly Hasta rubbed her cheek. If she and Gillian had stayed friends back in grade school, would this have ended up being her crowd? Would this be her life?
Eyeing Dennis sideways, she decided it was time to get some information. “You jokers work for Bobby, I take it,” she said
“You want another tap, you keep talking too,” said Dennis, brandishing a fist. “And we don’t work for that putz.” The car turned again, bumping over a curb. “Cripes, be careful!”
“Stop yelling at me!” Frida said. “I don’t even know this neighborhood.”
Hasta’s top lip trembled into a snarl. “Yeah, Bobby’s definitely the putz,” she said, glaring at Dennis. She knew it was a bad idea but couldn’t stop herself. “Not having to steal a car from mom and dad.”
This time Dennis punched her, right in the side of the head. Her skull smacked against the window, exploding in pain.
“Frankly, I don’t get why Gillian cares about you.” His sweaty bulk pressed her against the door as his piggish face leaned in close. “She told Frida to keep us away from you. Isn’t that right, Frida? Didn’t Gillian call you?”
“I don’t know,” Frida said, hunched close over the wheel. The sobs were audible in her voice.
“Yeah, but fortunately Frida was smart enough to tell us first, before she did anything stupid. So screw that stupid loudmouth Bobby, and screw Gillian too. You’re on the roll, chica, and we’re taking you straight to A.A. ourselves. Show him who’s really smarter, who’s got initiative.”
Dennis sat back, and Hasta could breathe again. A.A.? They couldn’t be on their way to rehab, could they? And what was this roll everyone kept talking about? Gillian had made it sound like a party invitation. Hasta tried to calm down and think, but her head hurt too much. The tears burning her cheeks weren’t helping much either.
She looked out the window and concentrated on the passing houses. What she had to do was stay alert and watch for a chance to get away. Yeah, and try not to get hit again.
But another thing was weighing on her mind. “No one’s talked to Bobby tonight, have they?” she asked. She wanted confirmation that he wasn’t dead. “I was supposed to call him earlier, but he wasn’t answering.”
“Probably off playing Mr. Big at the Cradle,” Dennis muttered. In the front seat Erin snickered.
Hasta tried not to let this dash her hopes. She told herself there was still intelligence to glean. She told herself she was calm and clever, a real double-agent type.
“How did I get on the roll, anyway?” she asked. “I have to admit, I was jealous when Gillian made it first.”
Erin looked over the back of the seat with narrowed eyes. Hasta returned what she hoped was an expression of wide-eyed innocence.
“The roll’s no business of ours,” Dennis said. “It’s—”
“It’s no business of yours,” Erin said, staring at Hasta. “All that matters is that you’re on it.” She turned to Frida. “And that you don’t talk about it out of turn.”
Frida’s shoulders shook. “I never talked about it. Not to Gillian, not until she was up. Not to anyone.” One hand came off the wheel as Frida pawed at her eyes. The car drifted left then straightened out again with a jerk. “Something bad’s happened to her. I know it.”
Dennis whacked Frida on the back of the head. “Just drive.”
But Frida’s words made Hasta queasy. She’d had that same feeling earlier, like something bad had happened to Gillian.
Hasta felt suddenly claustrophobic. God, I have to get out of this car.
They had just passed the high school, she realized, and were heading south. Lots of stop signs. Hasta gave the door handle another stealthy tug. She could feel the mechanism grind like it was broken or rusted inside—same as the doorknob to that garage where she’d hidden had felt. Hasta’s pulse quickened with excitement. Maybe that door had actually been locked too—and the door to Bobby’s car, and the back door to her house . . .
“Turn on the light,” Dennis said. “Time for a little prep work before we see the boss.”
Hasta snatched her hand back from the door handle as the gray interior of the car flared into brightness. From the pocket of his black sweat jacket Dennis produced a wax-paper envelope. He opened it to reveal the brown powder inside.
“Drift,” Hasta murmured, squinting against the light as her insides turning cold.
“Oh, yeah,” Dennis said quietly. “A miracle of modern science.”
Erin turned halfway around in her seat, her blue face gazing hungrily at the envelope. A car honked and sped around them. Even Frida couldn’t seem to stay focused on the road with the drift out in the open.
The envelope crackled as Dennis shook a little pile of powder into his right hand.
“Um, is that safe?” Hasta said. “I mean, after Adele and Brand . . .”
“Don’t mention their names,” Erin said, her lip curling. “Those were our friends.”
Dennis lowered his face toward his hand, holding his left nostril shut with a fingertip. “This is my friend,” he said, and snorted the powder. He straightened up fast, sniffling several times in rapid succession, then slumped into a state of blissful relaxation. “Oh, yes.”
The tip of Erin’s tongue touched her upper lip.
Dennis wiped his nose, then slowly straightened up. “Okay, little girl,” he said. “Your turn.” His voice lacked the cruel edge from a minute before. He shook a slightly smaller pile of drift into his hand and held it out to Hasta. “This’ll help with the dreams.”
Hasta shrank into the corner of her seat. “I’m okay,” she said. “I’ll pass this time.”
Fast as a cobra, Dennis seized a fistful of Hasta’s hair in his left hand. She yelped. “Doesn’t work that way. The way it works is, I do some, you do some, we all do some.”
His fist was knotted at the back of her head, wringing fresh tears from her eyes. Though she tried to resist, Dennis forced her face down toward the powder.
Hasta sucked in a deep breath and blew as hard as she could. The drift puffed into Dennis’s face.
He screamed and let go of her, both hands flying up to his eyes. Tendrils of steam or smoke leaked between his fingers.
Frida stomped on the brakes, throwing everyone forward. Bracing herself, Hasta grabbed the door handle and yanked hard. The mechanism scraped and protested, then suddenly yielded. Her door popped open.
Cold wind and traffic sounds mixed with the shouts inside the car. Hasta snatched her backpack and ran for it.
Brakes screeched and headlights slewed crazily as she dodged across Damen and between two parked cars. She hesitated a moment at the sidewalk. There was an el station a block to her left, shadowy streets to her right. Which way?
The sound of Dennis’s angry shouts spurred her toward the light, where she could hear a train just departing. A trickle of commuters exited the station.
“Help, help!” she shouted, charging toward them. “Help me!”
A businessman in a suit stepped out of her way, then two hipsters in black, and a spiky-haired woman in a leather jacket. Hasta looked back. Dennis was half a block behind her, with Erin following. The cold air made everything around her seem hypersharp.
“Stop them, please!” Hasta screamed. “They’re gonna kill me!”
She didn’t wait to see if anyone would help. When she reached the station she pushed through the swinging wooden doors into the brightness, shoving a panhandler with a cup full of coins to the tile floor. She pounded on the glass of the ticket booth. The attendant inside in his blue uniform, terrified, backed up as far as he could in the tiny booth.
“Please, help, call the police!” she cried, hitting the glass repeatedly with the meat of her fist, but the attendant only cringed, waving his arms as if to ward off a crazy assailant. He was young, and he looked Indian like her.
A dozen people were pushing through the turnstiles and leaving the station. She ran for the one empty lane and tried to vault over, but caught one of her feet and crashed to the cold tiles on the other side. No one bent to help her.
Hasta hauled herself to her feet and limped as fast as she could. People were still trickling down the stairs from the outbound platform, so Hasta took the other stairs. If one train had just left, then another would probably arrive sooner on the opposite platform. She didn’t dare look back as she hobbled up the stairs, sure that Dennis’s hand was moments away from clamping down on her shoulder.
At the top, tears streaming, she half-ran and half-limped past a few knots of blurry people who stood as far back from her as they could. “Please,” she repeated, “please,” but no one stepped forward to help or even ask what was wrong.
Most of the platform stood open to the night air, and the freezing wind rocked her as she limped along. The elevated tracks crossed Damen here. Only a chest-high railing on her left separated her from a thirty-foot fall to the pavement. To her right were the tracks, which her eyes followed into the black distance. No headlight approaching.
Hasta turned before she reached the end of the platform, her backpack dangling from her hand. A few rats scurried into hiding behind a black garbage can. Dennis was fifty feet back, breathing hard. He slowed to a walk and held both hands up. With his black clothes and rolls of fat, he looked like the anti-Michelin Man. His eyes gleamed red and wet in the yellow light of the security lamps, and blood streamed from his nose. Hasta’s stomach churned at what she’d done. At least his eyes had stopped smoking.
“We can do this two ways,” Dennis said, blinking furiously. “We can do it easy, or we can do it hard.”
“Just leave me alone,” Hasta said. “I don’t want to hurt you.”
Dennis snickered, continuing his approach. Fifty feet behind him, Erin was just cresting the stairs. “I’m not the one who’s about to get hurt.”
Hasta pointed at him in desperation, trying to will him to stop moving. “That’s far enough, you fat freak!” she said.
Dennis snatched a handful of air in one meaty fist. “What did you call me?”
He was still more than twenty feet away, but when he raised his trembling fist, Hasta felt herself lifted a few inches into the air. She dropped her backpack in surprise. As much as she flailed her limbs, she couldn’t make herself sink back to the platform.
“Dennis, don’t, you can’t!” Erin shouted, rushing toward him.
He paid her no attention. He cocked to one side as his face twisted with strain. “Don’t know what you’re messing with, do you, little girl?” he said.
An angry clarity settled over Hasta. She stopped struggling and simply hung there, her feet itching for a solid surface beneath them. “I’m telling you, Dennis, put me down and walk away.”
Red-faced, Dennis raised his quivering fist higher and drew it toward him. Erin was right behind him, shouting. Hasta rose no further but her stomach lurched as began to be pulled toward him. Her useless feet skidded on nothing.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered, staring at Dennis as she jabbed her middle finger into the air.
She fell suddenly backward, landing half on her lumpy backpack and cracking her head against the black garbage can. Stars flashed and rats chattered. Dizzy and nauseated, she tried to sit up, but Erin was rushing toward her, teeth bared.
Hasta scuttled backward like a crab, but to no avail. In a moment Erin was sitting on her chest, and Hasta could barely get a breath.
“Where is he?” Erin demanded, her blue face clenched in rage. “What did you do with him?”
Hasta managed to wrench her arm out from under Erin’s knee. She jabbed with her middle finger.
“Screw you too, scud,” Erin said, wrapping her hands around Hasta’s throat.
Hasta struggled but couldn’t seem to get a breath. Her body was like lead. Erin’s ugly blue face above her was all she could see, until the swarming, expanding black spots blotted it out. √
To be continued…