Discover more from William Shunn’s Main Wish Null
Root: Part I, Chapter 3
In the next installment of our serial novel, Hasta's afternoon goes from weird to dangerous to downright unbelievable.
For more on this project, please see “This Year a Serial Takes Root.”
At first Hasta thought she’d topple over like a statue. She remained upright, though—leaning slightly forward, left foot raised—with no sense of losing her balance. She somehow felt no panic.
Hasta’s eyes didn’t move, but she felt she had all the time in the world to take in the scene in front of her—the scuffed floor, the splintery mop handle, the scratched yellow bucket, the soapy gray water, the rough weave of Mr. Kostner’s brown work shirt, the dry skin flakes in the creases on the palm of his upraised hand, the coarse gray hairs curling around the side of his wrist. She saw everything in such detail that she was sure she’d be able to recall it perfectly in twenty years.
What was going on? Was this the big stroke she’d been expecting, her brain’s last lingering gasp before oxygen starvation killed it? Or was it a trance like Gillian’s in detention?
The moment stretched. The world was still and silent. The only emotions Hasta felt were wonder and curiosity.
Then, as sound crashed in again, the sole of her combat boot came down on the linoleum tile.
“Hello, young lady,” Mr. Kostner said.
Hasta stumbled a little and stopped, her heart pounding. She turned as the janitor pushed his bucket past.
“Did something just happen?” she asked.
From somewhere behind her came Principal Armisted’s voice, unusually subdued. “It seems I spoke too soon.”
Hasta spun. The principal was pulling the door to the history room shut. “What? What’s going on?”
Principal Armisted pinched the bridge of her nose. “Let me see you to the front doors, Miss Veeramachaneni,” she said quietly. “Carry on, Mr. Kostner.”
“Yes, ma’am,” said the old janitor. He gave Hasta an odd look over his shoulder as he continued down the hall.
The principal straightened her blazer and took Hasta by the arm. There was something disconcertingly kind about the way she patted Hasta’s shoulder as she led the way down the hall. For the first time, Hasta understood that the older woman might be someone’s mother, or even someone’s grandmother. Already the frozen instant was beginning to seem unreal, a momentary blip in her perceptions.
“You’re coming up on a time of great changes in your life, my dear,” said the principal.
“Um,” Hasta said uneasily, looking down at her chest, “I think you’re a little late for that talk.”
Principal Armisted led her along quickly. “I am,” she said, “but unfortunately there’s very little I’m allowed to say to you on the subject.”
“Sometimes the law’s a pain in the butt,” Hasta said, more rattled than ever.
They rounded the corner by the main office. Two girls in red cheerleading uniforms were working on a display for the black letterboard case on the wall. One bounced up to Hasta beaming a brilliant white smile.
“Hey, you’re a freshman, right?” she said, flapping a sheet of paper covered with signatures and email addresses. Hasta flinched. The girl was pretty and brown and had a good four inches on her in every dimension that mattered. “The Vikings could sure use your teen spirit in Pep Club. Join up for a free ride and admission to every—”
“Thank you, Miss Valdez,” said Principal Armisted, waving the girl away. “As you were.”
The girl flounced back to the letterboard in silence. The heading at the top read, in white plastic letters: RAH! TEEN PEP EARNS RIDE! Beneath were construction-paper cutouts of a bus and two cheerleaders.
Looking at it, the principal sighed, then steered her out the front doors into the afternoon sun. A chilly breeze raised goosebumps on Hasta’s arms. She shivered in her sweatshirt and jeans. The weather index had not listed any wind.
Dropping Hasta’s arm, the principal fished in a pocket of her blazer and brought out a pack of cigarettes.
“Don’t smoke,” Armisted said, cupping her hand around a match as she lit up. She dropped the match into a bucket of sand that Hasta had never seen on the school steps before. “Not that it really matters at this point.”
Nervous, Hasta hugged herself. “Is something happening?” she asked.
Principal Armisted blew a stream of smoke toward the front lawn and busy Damen Avenue. A truck from the armed forces was parked at the curb, and three soldiers in uniform were erecting a recruitment booth on the grass.
“War,” she said, tiredly rubbing her forehead. “Time after time, I remind you students that the school is your refuge from the world. But none of you ever seems to listen.”
Hasta rocked from foot to foot. She had no idea what was going on, and that scared her. “Okay . . .”
The principal turned and looked Hasta full in the eyes. Her violet irises seemed to glow.
“Oh, and another thing. Your friend Gillian is in trouble.”
Hasta squirmed under that gaze. “She’s not my friend.”
“You don’t know who your friends are.” Armisted took a deep drag and let the smoke leak up from the corners of her mouth. “I know this won’t make any sense, but you may be the only one with the background to help her, or any of us, so listen closely. Stay away from the drug known as drift. If you see a brown sedan with two strange men inside, run or hide. Trust your parents, who named you wisely. And remember, the school is your refuge.”
Hasta felt cold inside. “Are you trying to freak me out? Because you’re doing a really good job of it.”
“I’m trying to open your eyes.” The principal pointed to the street. “Now go, child. Quickly.”
Her tone brooked no argument, and Hasta found herself trotting up the sidewalk before she realized it, giving the soldiers a wide berth. What was up with Armisted, trying to weird her out like that? At the corner of Damen and Foster, Hasta stopped and looked back. The principal still stood smoking on the front steps of the school, lonely as a weather vane.
Gillian Smart was the clever person who’d devised the nickname “H.I.V.” back in fifth grade, telling everyone those were Hasta’s full initials.
“That girl is not my problem,” Hasta said to herself as she crossed the street.
The last thing she wanted to do was go home and tell her father about detention. She was spooked, but not so spooked she cared to sit through another stupid lecture about how she was putting her future in jeopardy.
She realized her phone was still off and turned it back on. There was a text from Juan saying he wanted to see her. It made her a little weak in the knees—not a feeling she’d understood before yesterday—and an hour earlier she would have jumped at the chance, but now she had other things on her mind. There were four messages from Ivan, basically telling her to get online and join up with him playing Soul Warrior. She did kind of want to talk to Ivan, but the prospect of mindless mayhem didn’t appeal to her right now. She sent both boys the same quick text:
weird day tlk l8r
The further Hasta walked, the more normal she felt. The sights and sounds of the North Side—cars, trucks, bicycles, taxis, pedestrians, tall trees, dogs on leashes, quiet storefronts—surrounded her and helped her forget herself. Soon she was wandering east down the alleys that bisected most Chicago blocks, kicking at stray cans, huddled in her sweatshirt. Instead of the neat porches and proper facades of the main streets, the deserted alleys contained the garbage cans and dumpsters, the parking lots and garages, the unbricked rear walls and brightly festooned back decks of the apartments, houses, and stores out front.
Thoughts of war and the end of the world echoed in her mind. Here it was all too easy to imagine herself the last living human on earth, like the hero from a novel by her favorite writer, Maxine Sorrow. She might be the final survivor of some nuclear war, or environmental disaster, or—no, a bioengineered plague, and she was the only one immune. She’d need to gather food by day because the animals would reclaim the city at night. She’d go live in that old movie theater down on Southport, the Music Box—as long as the place wasn’t packed full of corpses.
The breeze grew colder and more insistent, though the afternoon sun still shone brightly. Up ahead, this stretch of alley made an abrupt L-turn to follow the back of a five-story brick apartment building that sprawled around two sides of the block. Below the rows and rows of wrought-iron balconies gaped an open loading bay.
The back of her neck prickled. This was Gillian Smart’s building. At least it had been back when they were still friends. Had Hasta wandered here by coincidence? Maybe her creeped-out subconscious had led the way, nudged by Principal Armisted’s suggestion. God, adults were so annoying!
Hasta had nearly reached the bend in the alley when the sound of a car engine made her jump. This better not be a brown sedan, she thought as she looked over her shoulder. But no, it was just some ugly old green hatchback entering the mouth of the alley. It looked twice as old as she was. Hasta hurried around the bend and stepped to one side so the car could pass.
But instead of rounding the corner, the car pulled straight into the loading bay. Hasta started walking again, but as she looked back a slight figure in a black leather jacket five sizes too big pushed through a door in the back of the apartment building and darted around into the loading bay.
That blue face was unmistakable. Gillian.
The girl hadn’t spotted her. Keep walking, Hasta told herself, but Principal Armisted’s words echoed in her head. She tiptoed back toward the loading bay where the car’s taillights glowered like a pair of red eyes. The idling engine covered the crunch of her boots across the gravel surface. She heard rap music and murmuring voices as she pressed herself to the brick wall near the door where Gillian had come out. She peeked into the loading bay.
Gillian stood about six feet from the tall, dark-haired white boy who had emerged from the driver’s seat. He wore an Amundsen letter jacket, and his face seemed familiar from school. His fists were clenched. She couldn’t quite make out what he was saying.
Gillian’s back was mostly to Hasta, so her response was completely unintelligible, but from her posture she looked like she wanted to bolt. The boy said something else and Gillian shrugged, not looking him in the eyes. Hasta actually felt bad for her—and fearful.
The boy waved at Gillian with disgust, which is when Hasta recognized him. Robert Kimball. He was a senior, and he had made that same dismissive gesture last year every time he and his buddies were about to stuff Ivan into a garbage can. Hasta couldn’t stand him.
He passed what looked like a small wax-paper envelope to Gillian, whose shoulders began to shake.
Hasta’s stomach seized. Was that a packet of drift?
Gillian stood staring down at the envelope, holding it gingerly by its edges. Robert reached out and tipped her chin up. She shied away from his touch, turning her blue face to the side.
It was that moment when something furry and insistent rubbed itself against Hasta’s calf.
“Aaaah!” she said, bouncing away from the wall on one leg. A smoke-gray cat sprang away from her, hissing, even as Robert’s and Gillian’s faces both swing toward her.
“Hasta?” Gillian said.
“Hey!” shouted Robert, pushing Gillian aside and pointing. “I want to talk to you!”
Hasta didn’t wait to find out why. Fighting for balance, she spun around and tried to run. Her boots slipped and skidded in the gravel, and her palms hit the ground, but she got her feet under her at last and barreled north up the alley.
“Stop!” Robert said. Hasta heard running footsteps behind her, then a yell and a spray of gravel.
Hasta risked a quick look back. Robert’s legs had skidded out from under him on the surface of the alley. He’d fallen flat on his side but was already getting up again. Hasta kept running.
She was only twenty yards from the sidewalk when a rust-spotted old pickup turned into the alley, blocking her way. It was so overloaded with old furniture and other junk that it was going to be hard to squeeze past it. Hasta froze for a moment. The old driver appeared to be rummaging for something on the seat beside him and not paying much attention.
Hasta dodged left down the narrow breezeway between two garages. She heard Robert shouting again, and suddenly the truck’s brakes screeched. It lurched to a stop, blocking the breezeway behind her. Glass shattered as something tumbled from the pickup bed.
The other end of the breezeway was blocked by a solid wooden gate taller than she was. Gasping, Hasta rattled the knob. It was locked from the other side but felt loose enough that she kept on jiggling it.
Out in the alley, Robert shouted, “Move it, gramps!”
Hasta slammed her shoulder against the gate and kept twisting the knob, but the lock held.
With a squeal of its tires, the truck jolted into motion. Hasta looked back. It rolled out of view to reveal Robert standing on the far side of the alley. He stepped over a broken table lamp and limped toward her. The right leg of his jeans was ripped from pocket to knee, showing a bloody stretch of skin scraped raw.
Hasta looked up at the open gap above the gate, down at the ground, back and forth between the two walls hemming her in. No way to scramble up and over the gate.
“Why is my life one crazy chick after another?” Robert said as he entered the breezeway. “All I said was I wanted to talk to you.”
“Whatever it is, I’m not interested,” Hasta said, rattling the knob again.
“Why doesn’t anyone want to talk to me?” he said, practically whining. He had stopped ten feet from her.
“Maybe because people don’t like stupid bullies.”
Robert took a slow step toward her. “What, you’d like a smart bully better?”
“If you find one, send him my way,” Hasta said.
Robert looked confused. “Don’t you get it?” he said, waving his hands wildly in the air and coming another step closer. “Gillian was supposed to tell you. You’re on the roll. You’re in.”
Hasta pressed her back against the gate. He was way too close, way too big, and in the constricted space she was starting to panic. “Is that supposed to mean something to me? Whatever it is, I don’t want in.”
Robert’s ice-blue eyes turned hard and mean. “What’s wrong with you? Everybody wants into the gang.” He tapped himself between the eyebrows with his middle finger, moving even closer. “Don’t you know how lucky you are, you dumb push-start?”
A cold fury surged through Hasta at the racial slur. He was denigrating the bindi, the red dot many South Asian women wore on their foreheads to symbolize honor, intellect, and prosperity.
“No means no, jerkwad!” she hissed, thrusting her raised middle finger into the air between them. “Now leave me alone!”
Her finger seemed to bump against an invisible rubber sheet that stretched for a moment before letting her punch through it. Hasta stumbled forward even as Robert fell backward, flinging his arms wide.
And with a faint pop, he vanished. √
William Shunn’s serial novel Root continues every Tuesday for paid subscribers only. To keep up with Hasta and the gang, please upgrade your subscription now!