Discover more from William Shunn’s Main Wish Null
Root: Part I, Chapter 5
Hasta tries to convince Ivan of all the strange things happening to her, but ends up giving away more than she intended.
For more on this project, please see “This Year a Serial Takes Root.”
“Wait, wait, wait,” said Ivan, stunned by the whole story. “When you say you made Bobby vanish, you mean you made him run off somehow, right? He made himself scarce, as they say.”
Hasta shook her head. “Not at all. I mean, standing ten feet away from him, it felt like I pushed him somehow, and he just disappeared into thin air.”
While Ivan gathered his thoughts, he carefully adjusted his coffee mug so the handle pointed at an angle perfectly parallel to the front edge of the table. Being at this particular table in this particular coffee shop made him uneasy. Hasta was more important than that, but he hoped she’d at least remember why and say something about it.
He’d been in the middle of hacking Soul Warrior so he could actually beat King Rudra—and possibly learn a few things about building their own game—when Hasta called and said, “Code Fred!” It meant drop everything and come help, but until now they’d only used it online during campaigns. She’d been lurking in the back of his mind for the past hour anyway, so he had hurried here to Hallowed Grounds as fast as his bike would carry him, only getting stuck in front of the mirror messing with the bleached-orange Brillo Pad he called hair for about six and a half minutes before making it out the door. That was good for him.
But now he was truly worried about Hasta. It was a long, crazy story she’d told him, starting with her stint in detention, and she was either in serious, serious trouble, or she was, well, confused. Maybe both. He tried to choose his words with care.
“Hasta,” he said, “are you positive that’s the way it happened? Maybe you’re blocking something out that would explain everything better. You did mention that moment in the hall at school.”
“Yeah, my aneurysm moment,” she said, frowning at the perfect foam on her untouched chai latte. “But that was so different, like time stopped and I could still see everything around me. This, Robert was just there one moment and not the next.”
Ivan drummed his fingers on the table. “What if, say, you bumped your head on something, and Bobby got scared you were hurt and took off? You might not remember him leaving.”
“That’s a little far-fetched, don’t you think? Gillian would’ve seen him go.”
“More far-fetched than making someone disappear with the power of your mind? Earth to Hasta.”
“I never said it was mind power.” Hasta offered a sheepish grin that followed. “And don’t worry. I do understand how far-fetched all this sounds. But if I did something to Robert and now he’s missing, maybe I should just go to the police.”
The hairs on the back of Ivan’s neck stood up. “My mom dated some cops. They couldn’t help a baboon find its own butt. What would you tell them, anyway?”
Hasta shrugged and hunched over her latte. “If something happens to me, at least they’d know who to look for.”
“Hey, don’t talk like that,” Ivan said, feeling a peculiar twist of grief inside. “Nothing’s going to happen to you.”
“Robert wanted something from me. He’s not going to leave me alone—assuming he’s not lying dead somewhere.”
Ivan finished the last of his coffee and reached into his backpack for a pen and his little notebook. “You must be the last person who still calls him Robert,” he said, noting down the cost of his black eye.
“What are you always writing in that book?” Hasta asked.
Ivan never seemed to have any cash on him, so one day he planned on surprising Hasta by paying her back for all the coffee. “Just dumb stuff I need to remember.” He put the notebook away again. “Don’t you know everyone calls him Bobby now?”
“How long has that been going on?”
“I don’t know. Probably since he started dealing drift over the summer.”
“Don’t you think it’s strange that people used to call him Robert but now it’s Bobby? It’s like going from James to Junior. It’s just backwards.”
Ivan ground his teeth remembering all the garbage-can stuffings last year. “He can call himself Billy Batson for all I care. Doesn’t change the fact that he’s a douche.”
“You’re right about that,” Hasta said with a genuine laugh. “But he’s a douche who might be out there looking for me.” She leaned in close over the table, voice low, brown eyes intense. “Ivan, there’s something really bizarre and scary going on. You eat this stuff up. What do I do?”
Even though it was already in perfect alignment, Ivan squared up the handle of his mug again. He also turned his spoon so it was parallel with the front edge of the table. He knew he tended to imagine weird conspiracies, but it was more out of fun than serious belief.
“Look,” he said at last, “don’t you think there has to be a rational explanation for everything?”
“Yes, I do,” Hasta said. She reached out and put her hand on his, and Ivan caught his breath. “I need you to be skeptical and ask rational questions. A dispassionate observer. That’s why I called you. Are you with me?”
Ivan’s hand tingled with an electricity that seemed to make the bones inside him vibrate. “Of course I am,” he said, staring at the tableware.
“Thank you,” Hasta said, her voice sounding calmer now. She drew back her hand. “That means the world to me.”
Ivan’s mind wanted to race in twelve different directions at one, but he reined it in. Solving Hasta’s problems would a simple process of project management—breaking a complex task down into manageable steps. It was the same way he stayed on top of his schoolwork and his freelance programming.
“We can do this,” he said resolutely. “I’m going to want to go look at that graffiti on the wall. And if Bobby’s car is still there, maybe we can learn something from it. But first I’m going to ask you to try something for me.”
“What kind of thing?” Hasta said.
He moved his coffee mug like a chess piece to the center of the table. “Make this disappear.”
Hasta stared at the mug for a moment, then burst out laughing. “You’re joking, right?”
“Not at all.”
“Come on. How am I supposed to do that?”
“You tell me. You say you did it with a dangerous drug dealer. A harmless chunk of ceramic should be easier.”
“You’re making fun of me now,” Hasta said.
“I’m not,” said Ivan. “This is a scientific test.”
“Ivan, I have no idea how I did it before. I was scared and I was angry. Maybe that had something to do with it. I’m not angry at your coffee cup.”
“That’s a very bad coffee cup,” Ivan said. “That cup slaughtered your family.”
Hasta took a deep, shuddering breath. “Making me giggle is not helping.”
“That cup canceled Fringe.”
“Okay, okay! Just shut up a minute.”
Hasta bent her face toward the coffee mug, lips pursed, brows knit. She stared at it hard. Her frown deepened until she quivered with effort. The mug stayed where it was.
She blew out her breath. “It’s no good,” she said. “I can’t do it.”
“You told me it felt like you pushed Bobby,” Ivan said. “Maybe you really did. Maybe he was closer than you remembered.”
“No, no, I never touched him. But maybe I do need to push.”
She drew her hand back, palm forward, then slammed it toward the mug. She stopped a few inches short. Again it didn’t move.
“I did it before,” Hasta said, almost pouting. “I know I did.”
“Something happened, no doubt,” Ivan said. “And we’re going to figure out what. But right now, I have to tell you I’m breathing one giant sigh of relief.”
Hasta’s nose wrinkled. “Why?”
“Because if you’d actually made it disappear, I would’ve crapped my pants.” He pointed at her latte. “Are you planning to drink that?”
“Be my guest,” Hasta said, rolling her eyes.
Ivan knocked the cooling tea concoction back in one long draft. He wiped foam from his upper lip. “Now let’s get out of here,” he said. “I’m not a huge fan of this place anymore.”
“Not a fan?” Hasta said, pushing back her chair. “But you—oh.” She had the grace to look chagrined. “Oh, God, Ivan, I’m sorry. This is where Kylie . . .”
“Yeah, dumped me. Broke my heart in as many pieces as pi has digits. Seventeen days ago. At this very table, in fact.”
“I’m so, so sorry. From now on, there’s a giant red X across the door to this place. Hallowed Grounds is dead to me.”
Ivan let his mouth quirk into a half-smile as he slipped his tan windbreaker on. “We don’t need to go that far. But thanks for remembering.”
Hasta rubbed her hands together while Ivan unchained his beat-up orange bike. It was getting downright chilly out, more chilly than it should have been given the late afternoon weather index. They left the lively commercial street and set a brisk pace west, Ivan pushing his squeaky bike.
Now that he was single again, the whole experience of having had an actual girlfriend seemed unreal. He’d never expected to have one in the first place, so on a certain level he felt like the universe had simply returned him to his proper default state. On the other hand, he missed Kylie badly. He missed the holding hands and kissing, of course, and he really missed the thought that there might come another opportunity like the one he was pretty sure in retrospect that he’d missed out on due to his own cluelessness. But what he missed most was having a smart, interesting, sexy girl around who, miraculously, thought he was smart and interesting and sexy too.
Hasta didn’t count, of course. They’d been friends since long before boy-girl stuff mattered to them. Which made it ironic that the reason Kylie broke up with him was how much time he spent with Hasta. He had never told Hasta that, though, and he had no plans to.
After a few blocks, they entered the L-shaped alley behind Gillian Smart’s building. “Whoa,” said Ivan at the sight of the artfully painted gold script on the wall ahead. He approached it slowly, then leaned his bike against a wall. He folded his arms and contemplated the message from twenty feet back, like a museum patron. Cold wind ruffled his hair.
“That’s really something,” he said over his shoulder. “You’re sure this wasn’t there originally?”
Hasta let out an exasperated sigh somewhere behind him. “I’m pretty sure I would’ve noticed it if it was,” she said. “And the paint still looked wet when we did see it.”
“Hmm.” How could someone have painted a message in such an elaborate, Hindu-looking script so quickly, so high up a brick wall, without being seen? It seemed impossible.
Ivan took another step back, eyes still on the message. His ankle bumped into something soft. He whirled even as an orange tabby cat jumped away from him. They took a couple of careful steps apart. The cat looked back at him, tail high and twitching, as it strode stiffly into the loading bay where an old green Gremlin was parked nose-in.
“The same thing happened to me earlier!” Hasta said, trailing Ivan into the loading bay.
“Were there this many cats around?” Ivan said. He shuddered as he looked around. Half a dozen of the slinky beasts were stalking through the cavernous space, either watching him with unreadable eyes or rubbing their furry sides against boxes and car tires. “I never saw so many in one place before.”
Ivan went to the passenger side of the Gremlin, a truly hideous relic of the 1970s with its tall, angular hatchback and long engine compartment. He tried the door handle. “Locked,” he said. “Oh, well. I thought maybe we could get Bobby’s address from his registration. Stake out his house, make sure he’s alive and well.”
Hasta tugged the driver’s door open with a grinding creak. “Yeah, I was afraid he might come after me, so locked the car up and tossed the keys in a mailbox before I called you.”
Ivan’s scalp tingled as Hasta reached across inside and unlocked his door. A couple of the cats hissed.
“Um, Hasta,” he said, climbing into the passenger seat, “if that’s true, then how did you just open that door?”
Hasta looked at the open door then back at Ivan. “Um, I don’t know? Maybe I didn’t actually lock it?”
“You must not have,” Ivan said. He rummaged in the glove compartment for Bobby’s registration and took a picture of it with his cell phone camera. The address was in the Rogers Park neighborhood, a couple of miles farther north.
They poked around the car for another couple of minutes, but the only odd things they could find were the two fifty-pound sacks of sugar in the back.
“What’s he doing, opening a bakery?” Ivan said.
Hasta was hugging herself, staring out into the alley. “We’ve been here long enough,” she said. “I want to go home.”
It was about half a mile from there to Hasta’s house. Ivan retrieved his bike and soon they were walking west again. Most of the other pedestrians were hurrying along with their hands deep in their coat pockets, casting curious glances at the threatening sky. Hasta seemed quiet and withdrawn. Ivan wondered if putting his arm around her would be an appropriate show of comfort, but he decided against it. Instead he concentrated on not stepping on any cracks in the sidewalk.
Halfway there a soft buzz sounded. Hasta stopped, slipped her backpack off her shoulder, and pulled her phone out of one of the side pockets. Somewhere in the distance, a dog barked, sounding lonesome in the failing light.
“Juan,” she said, peering at the screen. “Sorry.”
“Why’s Juan texting you?” Ivan said, tapping his foot as she texted back.
“Dude, he’s not just your friend,” Hasta said distractedly.
Yes, he is, Ivan thought. Then his mouth fell open as he remembered how weird she’d gotten when he was talking to Juan about their chem labs after lunch.
“Holy smokes, H.,” he said. “Don’t tell me you and Juan . . .”
“Don’t be stupid,” Hasta said, but her cheeks turned bright red.
“You are! Oh, my God.” Ivan couldn’t contain his sudden restlessness. The hand not holding his bike danced around, wanting some calming texture to rub. More dogs were barking, nearer than before. “When did this happen?”
Hasta had just let out an annoyed sigh when Ivan caught sight over her shoulder of a light-brown car cruising slowly down the street toward them. It was as long as a boat, dirty and dented, and no doubt awkward to drive on these narrow city streets.
“Ivan, just drop the—”
“Shh, shh, shh. Didn’t you mention that Armisted told you something about a brown sedan?”
Hasta lowered her phone. “Yeah, but—”
He nodded, looking past her. “Don’t turn around. I think it’s coming this way.” √
To be continued…