Discover more from William Shunn’s Main Wish Null
Root: Part I, Chapter 4
Hasta tries to deal with the aftermath of Robert's eerie disappearance, while Gillian tries not to deal with anything at all.
For more on this project, please see “This Year a Serial Takes Root.”
Hasta landed on her hands and knees and immediately threw up. She’d never felt so nauseated.
She scuttled backward from the puddle of vomit and shakily wiped her mouth. She looked up. Robert was nowhere in sight. What on earth had just happened? It felt like she’d pushed him somewhere—but how could that be?
Breathing hard, she climbed to her feet and leaned against one wall while a wave of dizziness passed. She forced herself to hobble back down the breezeway to the edge of the alley. She half-expected Robert to ambush her from hiding.
Hasta peeked into the alley. Gillian lurked a few feet away, pressed against the garage door. She jumped, and so did Hasta.
“What happened?” Gillian demanded. “Where’s Bobby?”
Hasta glanced the other way down the alley. No one in sight. “I—I’m not sure. I didn’t see where he went.”
Gillian sagged against the garage door, head back, practically swimming in her black leather jacket. “Oh, God, where did he go?”
Hasta wasn’t sure he was anywhere at all, but wasn’t about to say so.
Gillian pounded the back of her head against the wood. “He is so going to kill me.”
“Why?” Hasta said. She couldn’t stop shaking. “What’s going on here? What did he want with me?”
Gillian glared at her. Eyeliner streaked her blue cheeks, her eyes wet and red inside their thick black borders. She launched herself suddenly at Hasta, pummeling her chest and shoulders with frantic blows. “Why did you just show up like that? What were you thinking?”
Hasta stumbled back and raised her arms to block the attack. “I didn’t mean to.”
“I told him I hadn’t talked to you yet!” Gillian whined. “But then you just show up.” She dropped her arms and seemed to deflate. “Bobby’s going to think I’m lying to him. I don’t know what he’ll do.”
Hasta’s head hurt. She raised her palms. “Look, I’m really sorry you’re in trouble with your drug dealer, but it’s got nothing to do with me. Tell him that, okay?” But even as she said it, the principal’s words echoed in her head, how Gillian was in trouble and only Hasta could help.
Gillian didn’t seem to hear, though. “He’ll probably cut me off,” she said, her lower lip trembling, “and then I’ll wish I was dead. I can’t hack the nightmares anymore.”
“What are you talking about?” Hasta said. She was antsy to get moving, to get away. None of this was her problem. None of it was her fault. “I don’t understand anything you’re saying.”
Gillian took a cell phone out of her jacket pocket. She looked at it lying in the palm of her hand, and didn’t seem to notice anything else.
“It shouldn’t have gone like this,” she said, as distant as a girl trapped at the bottom of a well. “But you’ve really messed things up for me with Bobby. I guess you think we’re evens now.”
Evens. It was a word from their childhood meaning the scales of fairness were balanced. Hasta shrugged off the strange, poignant emotions it dredged up, memories of a lost time.
“I don’t think we’re anything,” she said.
Gillian thrust the cell phone toward Hasta. Her eyes were red and swollen with misery. “At least take this. You may need it.”
Hasta eyed the phone like she would a snake. “What for?”
Gillian pushed the phone closer to her. “Protection, okay?”
“No way,” said Hasta, raising her hands. Maybe the phone was evidence of something Gillian wanted to hide.
“Hasta, please, take it. And just—just stay away from Bobby, and everyone else in his crew.”
“That’s my plan, starting with you.” Hasta was backing away. “And if you’re so afraid of Robert—Bobby, whatever—you should get out of here too before he comes back for his car.”
“His car?” Gillian turned her head toward the apartment building and its loading bay, where Bobby’s car was still idling. “Why would he have left without his—”
She fell silent, and Hasta could see why. On the facing brick wall at the bend in the alley, someone had spray-painted a message in big gold letters:
THE END IS NEAR!
Hasta felt cold inside. “Um, was that there a minute ago?”
“I don’t know,” Gillian said in a quavery voice. “I don’t think so.”
The words were painted in an ornate, looping script that reminded Hasta of Sanskrit.
“You didn’t do it, did you?” Hasta asked.
Gillian’s voice rose toward hysteria. “What do you think I am, magic?”
“I don’t know. Are you?”
“Just tend your own biz!” Gillian shouted and ran back to her building, cell phone in hand.
Hasta followed. “Gillian, wait!” Getting some answers suddenly seemed like a good idea.
But it was too late now. Gillian slipped through the rear door of her building, harsh light from inside making the dyed ends of her hair gleam like blood. By the time Hasta caught up, the door was closed and locked.
After securing all the deadbolts on the front door of her family’s fourth-floor apartment, Gillian locked herself in her bedroom and went straight to the window. Between that weird frozen moment after detention and the sudden appearance of the gold graffiti, she was sure something bad was coming, something very, very bad. She didn’t want to be around to find out what.
Breathing hard, she looked out the window to see if the message was still visible on the facing angle of the building. The last thing she expected was to see Hasta walking into view from out of the loading bay below.
“Why are you still there?” Gillian cried, her voice rising toward hysteria. Her tear-streaked reflection in the glass overlay the scene like a pale blue ghost. She wiped her cheeks with the back of her hand, smearing her makeup everywhere. She felt like she was being torn in half inside. “You wanted to trek, you dumb scud, so just trek already!”
Hasta stopped in the middle of the alley, staring up at the graffiti with her hands on her hips. She was a small, forlorn-looking figure with a dopey ponytail and a dopier sweatshirt. Why did the sight of her stomp so hard on Gillian’s heart?
Then Gillian knew. It was because Hasta was alone and isolated down there, just like that day on the school playground in fifth grade. The day when the kids who used to be her friends started telling her how much she stank. The day they all ran away from her holding their noses.
That was Gillian’s doing, all because when Frida Sandstrom asked her did Hasta’s house stink because she heard all Indian people’s houses stank, Gillian said yes. She said yes, Hasta’s house stank even worse than any other Indian person’s house, stank so bad you couldn’t even breathe inside it, and she said it only because she wanted to possess some knowledge that Frida didn’t have. She said it only because she wanted Frida to keep liking her.
Gillian rubbed fiercely at her cheeks. The girl standing in the alley, overlaid by the monstrous sobbing reflection, looked so helpless down there, so powerless. But Gillian was powerless too. The drift had seen to that.
She wanted to not have to think about any of this. She wanted to go to sleep, but sleep was not an option. Sleep was when the monsters would come, the monsters in her dreams. They were getting harder and harder to keep at bay—giant, ravenous monsters with axes in their hands, and necklaces of human heads around their necks. The monsters who wanted to eat the world, and only her to fight them. Only her in all the world to fight them because one by one her friends had been crushed and trampled under their feet. And when Gillian went to draw her sword in the nightmares, she could not grasp the hilt because she had no hands.
What had happened to Bobby? He was an idiot and a jerk, but maybe if she knew where he’d run off to, and why, she wouldn’t feel so terrifyingly alone.
She pulled her cell phone out of her jacket pocket—her real phone, not the scrambler she’d tried to give Hasta. Bringing up Bobby’s number, her hands felt steady for the first time since before she’d met him in the loading bay.
One ring. Two. Four. Six.
“Why aren’t you answering?” she sobbed as his greeting played. “Where’d you trek to?”
By the time the tone sounded, she could take only shuddering breaths. She was crying too hard to see.
She snapped the phone shut and shoved it down in her other pocket, which is when her fingers touched the wax paper. She drew out the envelope, crinkly-crackly and bottom-heavy with its load of potent powder.
Gillian turned away from the window. Now this was power. This could put her beyond Bobby’s reach, beyond the reach of the nightmares, of her parents’ uncaring disapproval, of the coming cataclysm, of her own guilt. She looked at her disastrous bedroom—the rats’ nest of a bed with its black sheets in disarray, the clothes and books and paper like tornado detritus, the pizza crusts turning green, the half-empty cans and bottles, the leering vampire posters. It was like her room and her life had been stirred by a giant, careless finger. How had it gotten this way in just five short weeks?
This was one mess she couldn’t fast-forward herself past.
She opened the envelope. All those thousands of tiny, gleaming brown crystals. She held it up to her nose. There was no smell. It could all be over so quickly, just like with Adele and Brand.
But she hesitated. There was one thing she had to do first. She wiped her eyes and looked back out the window. The alley was empty. Hasta was gone. Hasta, who may as well have been Gillian five weeks ago, so bullheaded and self-righteous, but with no presentiment of the nightmare bearing down on her.
She put the envelope down on the window sill and reached into an inside jacket pocket for the comm window she and Frida sometimes used. Frida, who had pulled her into A.A.’s rotten chain same as Gillian was now expected to pull Hasta in.
But Gillian left the comm window in her pocket. It was all this magic that had made so much trouble for them in the first place. She dialed Frida on her cell phone instead.
After five rings, the call went to voice mail. Gillian wanted to throw her phone through the window. “Where is everyone?” she wailed as Frida’s stupid message played. Then the tone sounded. “Frida, listen to me. If you’ve ever loved me as a friend, you have to listen to me on this. You can’t let them bring Hasta into the chain. You owe me this. I won’t be around to keep it from happening, so it has to be you. Do you understand? It has to be you!”
Crying too hard to say any more, Gillian pressed her forehead against the glass and let the phone fall to the floor. The tear-blurred graffiti on the wall below seemed to mock her. THE END IS NEAR!
“Evens,” she said to the space where Hasta no longer stood. She picked up the envelope and opened it again. A drop of saline dripped in and sizzled. “For reals. Finally.”
She poured the powder onto the window sill and snorted it all. √
To be continued…