Discover more from William Shunn’s Main Wish Null
Root: Part I, Chapter 12
While Hasta and Ivan conduct tests of her abilities, Ivan’s reservations about Juan cast a pall over what they learn. Meanwhile the noose around them all draws tighter.
For more on this project, please see “This Year a Serial Takes Root.”
Ivan knelt in the north end zone of the football field, laying out blocks from Hasta’s backpack. He positioned each carefully on the goal line, setting them up in alphabetical order, each exactly four blocks’ width from its neighbors. It bothered him that a few of the letters were missing, and that there were extra instances of others, but he compensated for that by lining up every block with all the precision he could.
For the moment, his only goal was to hold himself together as, one after the next, his expectations of an orderly, predictable universe were overturned.
Hasta, convinced they were being followed, had insisted they catch a cab for the short ride north to Winnemac Park. Its semi-public sports stadium, separated from the back of the high school by a broad lawn and a parking lot, had been closed to joggers for two hours. The gates in the chain-link fence that enclosed it were all padlocked shut, but Hasta made short work of the first one they came to. She simply wrapped her hand around the casing of the lock and tugged. It popped open, and they were inside, no muss, no fuss.
Now Hasta and Juan were making their way around the stadium, unlocking every gate in case the group needed to make a hasty exit. Ivan, meanwhile, kept reminding himself there had to be a scientific explanation for everything he’d seen and experienced that evening. Otherwise, all bets were off, and he might as well just check himself into the bughouse now.
With the test array set up, Ivan sat back on his heels and cast his nervous gaze around the stadium. Anyone could be watching from the high bleacher seats that rose thirty feet or more on either side of the field, and in the low, yellow-tinged security light they might be hard to spot.
Ivan also worried about Hasta’s safety, alone out there with Juan. He didn’t like giving them time alone, especially since we wasn’t sure yet that Juan could really be trusted. But he hoped Juan would take this chance to step up and confess his drift use.
But soon enough Hasta and Juan were back, their ponytails blowing in the cold west wind, and Ivan knew his hope had not panned out.
“Guess what?” Hasta said excitedly. “Juan can do it too!”
Before Ivan could even formulate a question, Juan said, “It’s true! I can’t believe it, but it’s true!” He was grinning from ear to ear and practically bouncing on his toes.
The bottom had dropped out of Ivan’s stomach. “You mean the thing with the locks?”
“Totally!” said Hasta. “I mean, look at all the weird powers popping up today. I’m nothing special. Who’s to say someone else couldn’t do the things I can?”
Ivan wanted to argue that she was something special, but she’d also stolen his thunder with her theory. He’d been mulling over the same idea, and in fact that was part of what he wanted to test here. “That was, um, good thinking,” he said.
“I’m so sorry I doubted you, man,” said Juan. “Those locks just—wow! I hardly had to touch them and they fell open.”
“It was amazing,” Hasta said.
“A real natural at breaking and entering, huh?” said Ivan. Juan laughed good-naturedly, so Ivan tried to see the ability as a positive development. “How are you feeling physically?”
“A little sick to my stomach, honestly,” said Juan. “It was especially bad after my second lock, but then it got better.”
“But I feel fine,” Hasta said. “I think I’m starting to get used to this all.” She pointed at the blocks. “So what’s the plan here?”
“Okay.” Ivan rubbed his hands together and took a deep breath. “I have my own theory I’ve been working on, which is that this thing you do with your middle finger isn’t actually destroying any matter. I think that would release too much energy, and you’d probably see an explosion. A big one.”
“What do you think it is, then?” Hasta asked.
“I don’t know, but that’s why I want to see for myself.” He spread his arms. “So show us what you can do. Line up behind that first A over there and make it go away.”
Hasta took up a position in the end zone a few feet back from the first block in the line, facing the far end of the field. “I hope I can still do this,” she said. “I tried to do it to Erin Geraghty, but I couldn’t.”
“You can still jimmy locks,” Ivan said. “Maybe you ran your battery down and needed time to recharge.”
“They call that a refractory period in biology,” Juan said.
“I love it when you talk dirty,” said Ivan.
Hasta backed up another foot from the block. She assumed bowler’s stance, with her left hand cradling her raised right hand. Ivan moved well back, and Juan followed suit. Hasta swung her right arm back in a slow arc, then whipped it forward and up with her middle finger extended.
The block vanished.
Speechless, Ivan stared at the space where the object had been. Even prepared for it, a big part of his brain couldn’t wrap itself around what he’d just seen.
He heard himself giggle.
“Pretty cool, eh?” Hasta said. She looked a little unstable on her feet, but delighted.
“That was amazing,” said Ivan.
Juan hurried over to steady her with an arm. “That was incredible!” he said. “Man, there’s some kids in my neighborhood I’d like to do that to.”
Hopefully not the immediate neighborhood, Ivan thought. “How are you feeling, H.?”
“A little dizzy is all,” she said. “Nothing like what I felt the first time I did it.”
“Maybe you’re acclimating,” Ivan said. “Let’s try this again. But first we need someone on lookout. We’re sitting ducks out here otherwise.”
After some discussion, Juan headed to the top of the west bleachers to keep watch, though he wasn’t happy about it. In the end, Ivan could only persuade him to go by promising that he’d take over perimeter patrol in twenty minutes.
Hasta planted her hands on her hips when Juan was out of earshot. “Ivan, what’s going on between you two? Why are you trying to get rid of him?”
Ivan made a face to hide the knife he felt twisting in his heart. “I’m not trying to get rid of him.”
“Yes, you are.”
Even in the poor light, Hasta’s stern expression made him feel a nanometer tall. Ivan sighed. “There’s nothing going on,” he said, dropping to his knees and fiddling with the alignment of one of the blocks.
“Is that what Juan would say if I asked him?”
“I’m just tired, okay? And we need to work.”
“He’s one of us, Ivan,” said Hasta, looming over him. “I don’t want there to be anything that gets in the way of us working as a team.”
Stupid Juan, Ivan thought. “It won’t,” he said, then winced. “There isn’t.”
Hasta stood silently for several moments. “Okay,” she said at last. “But if there’s something I need to know, I expect you to tell me.”
“Roger that.” Ivan stood up. “Now can we proceed?”
For the next attempt, Ivan asked Hasta to put less effort into her gesture. She situated herself behind the second A in the line and jabbed her finger at it far more gently than before. It vanished, but at the same moment Ivan thought he glimpsed movement halfway down the field.
“Hang on,” he said, and jogged toward the fifty-yard line.
He was breathing hard by the time he spotted the wooden block lying in the grass. He picked it up and brought it back to Hasta.
“You get an A,” he said with a grin, slapping it into her hand. “You didn’t disintegrate this at all. You teleported it!”
Hasta gaped at the block in her hand. She turned it this way and that. “Ivan, do you know what this means?” she said, looking up at him with shining eyes. “I didn’t kill Bobby Kimball!”
“Well, probably not,” Ivan said. “As long as you didn’t put him in the middle of Lake Shore Drive.”
Hasta punched him in the arm. “Can I be relieved for five seconds without you ruining it?”
“Ruining it? This is remarkable.” Ivan was so excited, he could barely find his words. “This—this rewrites everything we know about physics.”
“Absolutely! You, somehow, have stumbled onto a way to hack around the energy expenditure required to move an object through space! It’s like—like using a lever to multiply force.” He swept her into a hug. “Hasta, we’re going to be famous. We might even win a Nobel Prize!”
Hasta pushed him away, laughing. “Whoa, Einstein. Let’s not get crazy here. And I don’t see how this relates to changing the colors of things, or making locks open up.”
Ivan grinned, nodding. “You’re right, you’re right. There are more experiments to run, subjects to test, papers to write. But first, I want to try.”
Ivan went down on one knee behind the next block in the line, a letter B. His palms were sweating.
“I don’t think you can do it,” Hasta said, issuing a clear challenge.
“My theory tells me I can,” said Ivan, but he felt a stab of fear and envy. What if he couldn’t?
He carefully extended his middle finger and aimed at the B.
“This crowd has gone deadly silent,” Hasta said in a portentous whisper. “Cinderella story, outta nowhere, a former greenskeeper now about to become—”
“Shut up!” Ivan said, and pushed.
He felt a moment of resistance before his finger punched through. Sparks exploded behind his eyes. He fell forward onto the grass and nearly threw up.
He didn’t know how long he lay there on his side, in fetal position, while Hasta sat next to him blowing on the sweat that streamed from his forehead.
“You’ll be okay,” she said. “It passes, I promise.”
For a while his head and stomach hurt so badly that he wished he were dead, but after another minute or so he was able to sit up. He hunched forward, head between his knees.
Hasta was patting his back. “Sorry if I messed you up.”
“It’s okay,” he said, trying to steady his breathing. “How did I do?”
“Take a look.”
Not only the B, but the C that had been next in line was missing.
Ivan’s eyes stung. “Oh, my God, I did it,” he said. “I did it.”
Suddenly Juan was rushing up to them out of the dimness, breathing hard. “Hey, guys!”
Adrenaline spiked through Ivan’s system. He forced himself to his feet.
“Someone coming?” Hasta said.
Juan waved his arms like he just couldn’t control his exuberance. “No one’s coming, but do this!” He made a circle of his thumb and forefingers and put it to his eye. He peered at Ivan through the circle. “Hey, you don’t look so good, man.”
Trading an indulgent look with Hasta, Ivan made the same circle with his hand and put it to his right eye. He closed his left eye.
He could see Juan as clearly as if it were day, but in high-contrast black-and-white instead of color.
“Whoa,” said Ivan.
“So it works for you, too?”
Ivan panned all around the stadium and the sky. The clouds were still a dark mass, practically black, but he could see everything else with a sharpness even greater than in reality. The benches in the bleachers stood out with perfect clarity. There was even a faint greenish tinge to the grass, like in a hand-tinted photograph. He turned toward Hasta and found her staring through her circled hand at him. He could detect the barest sheen of brown in her cheeks.
She grinned and they both lowered their hands. The night seemed darker than before.
“Yeah, it works,” said Ivan.
“How on earth did you figure this out?” Hasta asked, putting her hand back to her eye.
“I don’t know!” said Juan, practically vibrating. “I was up there in the bleachers trying to get a good look at this car out on the street, but someone’s porch light was blinding me. I was just trying to block out the glare.”
Gears began turning in Ivan’s head.
“Why don’t I take a turn as lookout,” he said. He still felt wobbly, but he could do it. “Hasta, show Juan what we’ve been doing. Have him try it.”
Juan had come from the west so Ivan headed across the grass toward the east bleachers, puzzling over the meaning of all these seemingly magical gestures. It couldn’t be hand motions alone that produced these wild effects. After all, people flipped each other off every day and no one ever teleported because of it. There had to be some other principle at work—something that had happened to them or changed for them that very day. But what?
And what about the actions themselves? So far, between the three of them, they’d discovered four new ways of operating on the world around them. Or maybe he should think of them as “methods,” like in object-oriented computer programming—predefined procedures for transforming data.
Ivan kept a silent, obsessive count of the rows as he climbed the bleachers, barely aware he was doing it. His stomach rumbled. He couldn’t remember when he’d eaten last. He needed coffee, too.
Twenty-five rows brought him to the top of the bleachers. He leaned against the chest-level railing and looked out over the rolling lawns and pathways of the park. The cold wind that tousled his hair carried the smell of rain. He raised his circled hand to his eye and was amazed again at how clearly he could see. He scanned the park from north to south but spotted only one far-off couple, strolling hand in hand past the backstop of a baseball diamond.
He rubbed the balls of both thumbs back and forth along the top of the railing, forcing himself to think. Every member of their group had discovered at least one method over the course of the day. If those were the only methods there were, how likely would it be for them to have stumbled across all four by accident? Not very.
What was more likely, Ivan realized, was that there were a lot more methods than just four. Dozens, maybe. Hundreds.
The sound of Hasta and Juan’s laughter echoed up from the field. “Keep it down,” Ivan muttered uneasily.
He squinted down at the nearest steel bleacher seat. He pointed his index finger at it and jabbed. Nothing happened.
Duh, he thought, feeling like an idiot. What did you expect?
But he kept trying. He made a fist with his thumb extended. He waggled his thumb back and forth, then turned his fist thumb-down. Nothing.
Ivan stroked his chin. There must be countless other gestures he could try, but now that he was putting himself on the spot he was drawing a blank.
Then he remembered the Yellow Pages logo and walk his first two fingers through the air while looking at the bleacher seat. No effect. He turned his hand over and crooked his index finger in a come-hither gesture.
A darkly glowing window sprang into existence just beyond his hand.
Ivan’s blood ran cold. “WTF?” he said aloud.
The window hung in mid-air, about eight inches wide and six inches high. It was a deeper black than anything else in the surrounding night, and it was filled with neat rows of luminous white characters.
As Ivan tried to focus on the text, he realized he could hear dogs barking in the distance—a lot of dogs. He stood up straight, straining his ears.
He heard a slight metallic clank from the other side of the field. Ivan raised his circled hand to his eye and scanned the far fence. He saw no movement, but a gate in the northwest corner of the perimeter was standing open. Had it been that way before?
As Ivan dithered about what to do, the two detectives materialized ten feet in from the gate. They emerged from nothingness in a vertical wipe, as if ripping away cloaks of invisibility, and they were moving fast.
Toward Hasta and Juan.
“Run!” screamed Ivan, clattering down the steps. “It’s them! Run!” √
To be continued…