Discover more from William Shunn’s Main Wish Null
Root: Part I, Chapter 2
In the next installment of our serial novel, after-school detention takes on a sinister dimension for Hasta and her ex-friend Gillian.
For more on this project, please see “This Year a Serial Takes Root.”
Detention was in Mr. Clement’s history classroom. His stupid rule was that you could only do your homework using reference books from his room or the school library—no other resources allowed, online or off. And the freaky thing was, he always seemed to know when you cheated.
But thankfully he wasn’t there yet. Hasta took a seat in the corner of the chilly classroom farthest from the door. She pulled her Einstein sweatshirt out of her backpack and slipped it on over her head. She had the classroom to herself until Gillian slunk in and plopped down in the first desk she came to. The girl glared at Hasta from that ugly blue face.
“Thanks a lot, scud,” she said.
“Screw you,” Hasta said, turning back to the window. “You didn’t have to chime in.”
It was hard to believe they’d ever been friends.
Hasta tried to let the scene outside calm her down. Huge elm trees towered over the school’s grassy front lawn and fading flowerbeds. The patterns of sunlight and shadow that ruffled their green-and-orange canopies reminded her of the shifting patterns of the Game of Life. The way each individual leaf flipped from light to dark and back seemed random, yet she could almost glimpse a system at work behind the overall pattern.
A spray of leaves shuddered loose from one bough and drifted up. Straight up.
Hasta blinked. When she looked again the leaves were halfway to the ground and still fluttering downward. Her eyes and mind playing tricks on her again.
Heels clicked loudly on tile. “Let me not waste your time, ladies,” Principal Armisted said, striding through the door and pulling it shut behind her.
Gillian barely glanced up from the yellow legal pad she was writing on, but Hasta sat up straight. What was this? She thought Mr. Clement was supposed to be running detention.
The principal stopped in front of a map of Pakistan, where American troops were hopelessly mired down in President McCain’s war. “Miss Smart, please pay attention,” she said, snapping her fingers. Gillian sullenly looked up. “Your detention assignment is to write me a paper at least five hundred words in length. Choose an ancient culture and describe how they believed the world would end.”
Gillian groaned and put her head down on her desk. Hasta swallowed her annoyance and nodded intently. She’d gotten herself into this mess. Getting through it was all she needed to think about. She could do this.
Principal Armisted swept her arm in a broad arc that took in Mr. Clement’s many creaky bookshelves filled with moldy old tomes. Her burgundy polyester pantsuit shimmered in the slanting afternoon sunlight.
“You may consult any volume in the room, of course. And since this is my assignment you may feel free to do your research electronically, but I don’t want you emailing or texting anyone. Oh, and one more thing.”
Her violet eyes narrowed at each girl in turn. Her gaze made Hasta feel like a frog on the dissection table.
“I don’t have to tell you how rare disciplinary problems are here at Amundsen High. One student in detention is remarkable enough, but since I have two today, I’d like to try something a little different. I want to see you collaborate. I want your joint paper at the end of the hour.”
“What?” Hasta protested. She pointed at Gillian, who was snickering ruefully and shaking her head. “You can’t really expect us to work together.”
Principal Armisted had turned to leave. One hand rested on the doorknob. “I can expect it, and I do,” she said, looking back. “You disrupted poor Ms. Deckard’s class together this afternoon, so I find it only fair that you make up for it together here now. Do well on this assignment and I can consider writing off your detention—which would mean it stays out of your permanent record.”
The principal gave Hasta another sharp look before sweeping out of the room.
“‘I want your joint paper at the end of the hour,’” Gillian said in a mocking voice. She rolled up a narrow strip ripped from the top sheet of her legal pad and held it to her lips. “I got your joint paper right here.”
Hasta sighed. It was going to be a long hour. “I can’t believe she’s leaving us in here together without supervision.”
“You think she’s not watching?” Gillian said. “Set one foot out the hatch, see how fast she treks.”
Gillian rolled her eyes. “Shows up out of nowhere.”
“Oh. How does she know?”
“What do I look like—Einstein?” Gillian said, pointing at Hasta’s sweatshirt. “She just knows.” She went back to writing on her pad. Her black backpack sat open on the floor beside her.
Hasta looked around the classroom but couldn’t spot any hidden cameras. She ended up staring longingly out the window at the cloudless sky. The daytime weather index for Chicago was a perfect 67 degrees, but that would only hold until five o’clock. She hated wasting any of this beautiful October weather. She wanted to be outside, not stuck here doing makework with a certified juvenile delinquent.
But she had no choice in the matter. Gritting her teeth, she gathered up her backpack and moved to the desk next to Gillian’s on the opposite side of the room. She would have preferred to stay by the open windows, but someone was going to have to take the lead here.
Gillian hunkered protectively over her legal pad. “Pardon me?” she said, glaring at Hasta.
“You heard Armisted. We have to work together.”
“No way,” Gillian said. “I’m not writing any dopey paper, not with you. I got my own biz to tend.”
Hasta leaned into the aisle, trying to read over Gillian’s arm. “What is that?”
“Party invitation,” Gillian said with a sullen sneer. Her bloodshot eyes drilled Hasta. “Don’t worry—you’re on the roll.”
“The roll? Like, invited?”
“That’s what I said.”
Hasta sat back, surprised. “Are you serious?”
“As a cardiac arrest.” Gillian bent back to her task.
A party invitation from Gillian Smart was the last thing Hasta expected—and probably not something she wanted to accept. No doubt the Drowning Girls were way into drift.
“Well, cool, I guess,” Hasta said, “but we still need to get this done. I don’t know about you, but I can’t afford another black mark.”
Gillian snorted a laugh.
Blood heated Hasta’s cheeks. “Was that funny?”
Putting down her pen, Gillian turned a cold smile on Hasta. “What cracks me up is that you think it matters.”
“It totally matters!” Hasta bounced in her seat, trying to keep a rein on her temper. “You may not care about getting into college, but I do.”
Gillian smirked. “Oh, right, because I forgot that rules don’t apply to you.”
“Of course rules apply to me,” Hasta said, though it felt a little like a lie.
“Not as much as the need for attention.”
Hasta’s anger flared. “I need attention? I’m not the one walking around with my face painted blue. What’s that about?”
Gillian’s lips compressed. “Just trying to blend in with the enemy,” she muttered.
Hasta put her palms flat on her desk and took a deep breath. “Look,” she said, eyes on her hands, “all we have to do is write one stupid little paper and we’re out of here. I’ll do the work. I’ve already got an ancient civilization in mind. All you need to do is a little Googling to make it look good, in case they’re watching our net usage. What do you say?”
Gillian sniffled, picked up her pen again, and bent deliberately over her legal pad. She didn’t look at Hasta. “Don’t make this harder than it needs to be,” she said quietly.
“What do you mean? I’m trying to make it easier.”
Gillian heaved a weary sigh. “Screw this,” she said. “Listen, scud, do me a favor—just leave me alone. And whatever goes down next, stay chill. Don’t freak out on me.”
With her right forefinger, Gillian traced a clockwise circle on the back of her left wrist. Then she slumped a little and didn’t move.
Startled, Hasta shook her shoulder. “Gillian?”
Gillian slid farther down in her seat, and her head tipped sideways toward her shoulder. Her eyes and mouth hung open. With the blue makeup, she looked more like a corpse than ever.
Hasta only realized she’d stood up and backed away when she bumped with a clatter into another desk. She felt strangely queasy. What was happening? A seizure? An overdose?
“If you’re just kidding around, Gillian, you better tell me now,” Hasta said. “I’m serious.”
Saliva leaked out the corner of Gillian’s mouth. She still didn’t move, although she did appear to be breathing.
Heart pounding, Hasta ran to the classroom door and out into the long hall. From what Gillian had said, she expected to find Principal Armisted lurking right outside, but there was no one in sight.
“Hey, anybody!” she shouted. No answer.
Hasta peeked back into the classroom. Gillian sat sprawled at her desk as inertly as ever. Hasta could go hunting for Principal Armisted or one of the teachers, but she wasn’t sure it was a good idea to leave Gillian alone. Time to call 911.
As she pulled her cell phone out and dialed with shaking fingers, she thought she sensed someone smoking nearby. She didn’t smell anything but couldn’t shake the impression of burning cigarettes.
She put the phone to her ear. “Emergency dispatch,” said a woman’s voice. “What is the nature of your emergency?”
“Hey, what are you doing?” Gillian demanded, sitting up straight in her chair and blinking.
Startled and relieved, Hasta turned her back on Gillian. “Sorry, I think I butt-dialed,” she said into the phone with one hand curled around her mouth. She broke the connection.
Gillian wiped the spit from her mouth. “What, were you calling an ambulance or something?”
“I thought you were dying!” Hasta said, all her anger churning up as she rounded on the girl.
Gillian rolled her head around as if she were working a kink out of her neck. “Freak,” she said. “Didn’t I say stay chill?”
Hasta turned her phone off, worried 911 might call her back. “You didn’t say you were about to go into a coma! A little heads-up would have been nice.”
“Whatever,” said Gillian. She glanced at the clock on the wall. She looked miserable. “Tend your own biz, okay?”
She traced another little circle on her wrist.
“What is that, some kind of self-hypnosis trick?” Hasta asked. But Gillian had already slumped over again.
Hasta made a frustrated sound. The queasy feeling was back. She clomped over to the desk next to Gillian’s, making as much noise as she could, to retrieve her backpack. Gillian didn’t so much as stir.
Sitting again in the farthest corner, Hasta pulled out her netbook and tried to concentrate on the assignment. It was hard because she kept looking over at Gillian, weirded out.
She took a deep breath. Screw that girl. Time to write a paper.
Given her family’s faith, Hasta figured it would be easiest to tackle the ancient Hindus. She wasn’t a believer herself, but she’d been exposed to the philosophies and the myths her whole life. The Hindu holy trinity comprised Brahma the Creator, Vishnu the Preserver, and Shiva the Destroyer, though each had endless other functions and attributes that overlapped in confusing ways. According to some traditions, the world ended every time Brahma went to sleep and was reborn each time he woke up. According to others, the world was instead a dream of Vishnu’s that would end when he awoke. Hasta typed up a page of notes, checking Wikipedia two or three times, in an attempt just to untangle all the variant stories.
“I should have picked Ragnarok instead,” Hasta said to herself after twenty minutes of trying to put together a clear line of explanation. The end of the world in Norse mythology, as she’d learned from Thor comics, was a simple, clear-cut battle between good and evil.
She decided to focus on the different ways of looking at the cycle of destruction and rebirth in Hindu myth. She typed furiously, interrupted every few minutes by Gillian waking up and putting herself back to sleep. Hasta wondered if whole worlds arose and passed away in Gillian’s head each time this happened.
About forty minutes in, a big orange cat leapt up onto the window sill and rubbed its fur against the glass. Hasta shivered watching it. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d seen a cat. When it jumped down again, she went to the window but couldn’t spot it outside.
A couple of minutes before the end of the hour, Gillian woke up for good. “How’s our paper coming?” she asked, yawning and stretching.
“Shut up,” Hasta said. “I’m almost done.”
“Testy little scud,” said Gillian.
Hasta tuned her out. In the end, she typed, chewing her lower lip, the only thing Hindu mythology promises us with any certainty is that our imperfect world will be given chance after chance to redeem itself, to get right the things that went wrong the last time around. With a message like that, no wonder it’s still around five thousand years later!
She had just hit SAVE when Principal Armisted walked back into the room.
“It’s time to turn in your work, ladies,” the principal said, holding the door open. She looked back and forth between the two widely separated desks. “You did work together, am I correct?”
Gillian was stuffing her legal pad into her black shoulder bag. “No doubt,” she said.
Principal Armisted frowned. “Email me your paper and you’re both free to go.”
As Hasta sent the document, Gillian bolted for the door. She ducked under the principal’s arm and made her getaway.
“Slow down, Miss Smart,” Principal Armisted called over her shoulder. “Remember our talk about patience!”
Hasta stuffed her netbook into her backpack. She lowered her head and tried to slip past Principal Armisted the way Gillian had, but one polyester-encased arm slid down to block her path.
“Not so fast, Miss Veeramachaneni.”
Hasta pointed into the hallway. “Why does she get to leave?”
“Because you’re on the cusp, and I still have hope for you.”
“The cusp of what?”
The principal’s violet eyes drilled through Hasta. “Can you give me your assurance that you and Miss Smart really did work together on that paper?”
“Yes,” Hasta said, squirming. It was hard not to look away.
“Are you sure?”
“Yes,” she protested, glancing at the empty hallway. “She did the research, I did the writing.”
Principal Armisted sighed. She laid a cold hand on Hasta’s shoulder. Hasta tried not to shy away, but the touch made her uncomfortable.
“You’re a smart young lady, but you’ll make a lot of trouble for yourself in this world until you learn to think before you speak. That goes for asking questions and answering them alike. Now I’m afraid I must fail you on your assignment today.”
“What?” Hasta demanded. “But the assignment’s done!”
“No, it isn’t. I know you didn’t work together, and that was the assignment.”
Hasta shrugged the principal’s hand off her shoulder, seething. This was so unfair! There was no way she could have passed, not when Gillian wouldn’t cooperate. Her nostrils flared. She may as well not even have tried.
Principal Armisted smiled in what was probably meant to be a reassuring way, but it only made her look hungry. “Why the sour expression?” she said, standing back from the door. “So you earned one failing grade in detention. It’s hardly the end of the world.”
Hasta stormed out of the room, eager to get away before she said something that would get her in even more trouble. Her father was going to kill her as it was.
The long hallway was empty except for Mr. Kostner, the elderly white janitor, who was pushing a squeaky mop bucket her way. He began to raise his hand in greeting.
But then the world froze. Between one step and the next, Hasta found she couldn’t move. √
Watch for the third of our three free chapters of Root next week, and please consider upgrading to a paid subscription to keep reading all year long!