Discover more from William Shunn’s Main Wish Null
Root: Part I, Chapter 7
After a stern lecture from her father, Hasta learns that she may not be the only one who can make strange things happen, and the secret circle widens by one.
For more on this project, please see “This Year a Serial Takes Root.”
By the time they reached her block, Hasta felt like a cell phone on vibrate, the way the back of her neck wouldn’t stop prickling. Her family’s corner house, with its many unexpected projections and overhangs, gave the impression of a much larger structure that had gradually settled into a comfortable heap. Hasta led Ivan through the yard and around to the back deck. Halogen lamps mounted on the house and the garage clicked on automatically as they climbed the steps.
Through the kitchen window, Hasta saw her slim father pouring himself a glass of water from the filtration pitcher in the fridge. He wore a white shirt and purple yoga pants, and his brown face was filmed with sweat.
The back door was unlocked, as usual, though the knob felt a little sticky. “Seriously, Raj,” Hasta said as she entered, “you need to start locking this door, or someone less well-meaning than me is gonna make off with all your little gods.”
Her father seemed neither surprised to see her nor particularly amused. “Than I,” he said, setting his water glass down on the counter.
“Someone a little less harmless than I.” He spoke with a maddeningly precise diction that was a cross between all the worst of Indian singsong and British stuffiness. “Since ‘someone’ is the subject of the sentence, the pronoun takes its same subjective case. And I did lock that door, not five minutes ago. I’m sure of it.”
Hasta crossed her arms. “Uh-huh, right.”
“But I’m not on trial, young lady. You’re rather late getting home from school. With this strange weather, I was growing worried. I texted you several times.” He nodded past Hasta’s shoulder. “Hello, Ivan. Always a pleasure to see you.”
Ivan had pulled the door shut after himself and turned the latch on the deadbolt. “Hello, Mr. V.,” he mumbled. He inclined his head in a gawky bow to her father, then turned to face a niche above the kitchen table and made the same motion toward the colorful shrine inside it—a tiny orange statue of the fire god Agni astride a great ram.
Hasta rolled her eyes.
“If you’ll pardon us, Ivan,” said her father, “I must speak with my daughter for a moment in private. Hasta?”
Sighing deeply, Hasta followed her father down the hall toward his office. On the way they passed the spare bedroom that over the years had freaked out so many of her potential friends. Every room in the house contained a shrine to one god or another, but this room was all shrine, complete with a five-foot wooden statue of Vishnu the Preserver. As Hasta had learned to her chagrin, most kids who came home reporting that a giant Hindu god had its own room were forbidden from ever coming over again. Even other Indian kids found it pretty weird.
To be honest, the Vishnu statue freaked her out a little, especially when, as now, the light in the room was off and the door was open. As sustainer of the universe and font of wisdom, Vishnu was not meant to be a frightening deity, but any smiling blind statue in a dark room could make her footsteps quicken.
Her father took a seat at the desk where he did much of his freelance programming work, surrounded by computer screens and glowing external disk drives. Hasta supposed Rajan Veeramachaneni was a handsome man, with his straight nose, clipped black mustache, and temples just touched with gray. But to Hasta he was the frowning personification of totalitarian oppression.
“Anne-Marie Armisted called me this afternoon,” he said. “Your principal.”
“Oh?” she said, standing awkwardly. She wished for a chair of her own.
“Yes.” His lips twitched with anger. His damp clothes meant he’d just completed his evening yoga ritual. It usually relaxed him, but apparently not today. “She told me you were held after school today for detention.”
Hasta crossed her arms and waited. She had more urgent worries right now than a lecture from her father.
Her father waited also, holding her with his level gaze, but it was he who gave in after a few moments more. “She told me your behavior in class is worsening,” he said. “She told me she’s extremely concerned.”
“My grades are fine,” Hasta said, tapping her foot.
“Grades are only one half of the equation, Hasta.” Her father laid his hands flat on the desktop. “If you can’t even act like a good citizen as a sophomore in high school, you’ll never make it at university. There they won’t tolerate such disruptions.”
Hasta thrust her jaw forward. “There I’ll bet the teachers aren’t such giant tools.”
“Language, Hasta!” her father scolded. But the corner of his mouth quirked up in amusement. “And I wouldn’t be so certain about that.”
Hasta started to relax in response, but her father slapped the desktop, mastering his involuntary smile.
“I must tell you, young lady, I find this increasing tendency toward disrespect, intolerance, and belligerence highly disturbing. I can only imagine the worst of possibilities behind your change of personality. So let me put my mind at ease and ask you straight out. Are you involved with drugs?”
Hasta saw red. “I have the gall to ask a question in class because I’m trying to learn something,” she said, “and you think it means I’m on drift?”
Her father sat forward and stared at her without blinking for several long seconds. “Interesting, my daughter,” he said. “I never mentioned anything called drift. Why does that particular word jump so readily to your lips?”
“God,” Hasta huffed. “Drift is all Principal Armisted ever talks about, but I don’t even know what it does. What do I have to do, pee in a cup?”
“What I want you to do,” her father said, “is consider yourself indefinitely grounded. When she gets home, your mother and I will have to consult on next steps. In the meantime, you’re not to leave the house. Ivan can help you study, but only for the next hour.”
“Fine,” said Hasta. She turned to leave.
“Flower,” said her father, his voice softening, “this world of ours may be an illusion, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have to take it seriously. I’ve always felt the gods have a plan for you, a purpose. That’s why—”
“That’s why you’ve raised me the way you have. Yes, I’m aware, and all of this is only for my good.” She flung open the door and stalked off down the hall.
“Hasta!” her father called. “Little darling! This isn’t the end of the world!”
“You don’t know what you’re talking about,” she muttered as she headed down the stairs from the kitchen.
The basement was, for the most part, one big unfinished space. Toward the far end were a washer and dryer, some exercise equipment, storage shelves, and a half-bathroom with a cheap door of pressed wood. The near end passed for a family room, with its musty couch, area rug, ancient television, and bookcase overflowing with board games. Hasta had spent many happy hours down here, but the best aspect of it by far was the lack of shrines.
On a desk in the corner sat one of the dozen or so computers in the house. Ivan was already perched in front of the bulky old monitor with a command-line window open when Hasta dragged a chair over.
“Well, I’m grounded,” she said. “How are you?”
“That kind of puts a crimp in our end-of-the-world plans, eh?” Ivan said. “Did you tell him we’re being stalked by psycho federal weirdos who want to know why you banished Bobby Kimball to the Phantom Zone?”
Hasta snorted. “He’d think I’m on drugs for sure. And I hope I didn’t send Bobby to the Phantom Zone.”
Ivan’s pocket chimed. “I hope you did,” he said, pulling his phone out. He glanced at it, silenced it, and put it away again.
“Your mom?” Hasta asked. She was an EMT. She mostly didn’t seem to care what Ivan did as long as he stayed out of her hair when she was off-duty, but sometimes around this time of day she checked in with him just to make sure he was alive.
“Um, yeah,” said Ivan, tapping at the keyboard. He clicked a link. “So, I’ve been trying to see what federal agencies might run field agents in Chicago. FBI, DEA, ATF, Secret Service, U.S. Marshals, Federal Aviation Administration, Fish and Wildlife—the list goes on. But in theory they’d all identify themselves and their agency if they stopped you.”
“Hey, wait,” Hasta said, “are you hacking the federal government from my family’s IP address?”
“Don’t worry, I was proxied up the wazoo, and I’m out now anyway.”
Hasta pushed her chair back and stood up. “I’m plenty worried,” she said. “Even if those guys weren’t real feds or detectives or whatever, I think they were after me, Ivan. What if I hurt Bobby somehow? What if I killed him?”
“More likely they’re associates of Bobby’s. Or maybe they’re rival dealers, Mafia, who knows. I’m sure you didn’t kill him, though.”
She couldn’t stand still, couldn’t get enough breath. “Then what happened to him?” She stalked to the far end of the basement and partway back, shaking her hands like she was trying to rid them of water, or blood. An abyss seemed to yawn at her feet.
But then Ivan was there in front of her. “Don’t worry,” he said. “We’re smart. We’ll figure this out.” For a second Hasta had the weird feeling that he was going to put his arms around her, but he took her by the shoulders instead. She felt a little tingle where he gripped her. “Do you believe me?”
Hasta took a deep breath, looked up into his intense, goofy face, and nodded. “I believe you.”
“Good,” he said, giving her a reassuring shake before letting go of her again.
His confidence helped reassure Hasta. She nodded slowly, pacing around. “So where do we start?”
Ivan grinned. “You may be grounded, but you don’t plan to actually stay that way, right?”
Hasta leaned back against the clothes dryer. “Of course not.”
“Awesome. Then I’d say our first priority is testing. I still want to see for myself what you can do. Someplace secluded, but where there’s plenty of open space—like the stadium behind the high school. Do you feel like sneaking out, and like, you know, doing that thing again?”
“I’m always up for sneaking out,” Hasta said. She hoisted herself up onto the dryer and sat with her legs dangling down the front of it, which put her at about Ivan’s eye level. The enameled metal surface was cool and reassuring beneath her thighs. “I do feel a lot better now. In fact, why don’t we just try it here?”
Ivan stroked his chin, looking around the basement. “I don’t know,” he said. “If you’re really making things vanish, I have to think there’s a huge energy expenditure going on. I think I’d feel safer out in the open.”
That did make a weird kind of sense, given how Hasta felt after each episode. “All right, the stadium it is,” she said.
“Cool. Then gather up some small items you don’t mind parting with. You’ve got a chest of old toys down here, right? Maybe some of that stuff, like wooden blocks or American Girl dolls or whatever.”
Hasta stuck out her tongue. “I never had an American Girl doll in my life.”
“What?” Ivan said with mock outrage. “They wouldn’t sell one to an Indian girl? I’d sue.”
“You have more dolls than I do.”
“Those are action figures.”
Ivan grunted, which made Hasta smile. “Anyway, while you load up your backpack I’ll wait for you in that overgrown lot down the street.”
“Sounds good,” said Hasta, kicking her heels idly at the dryer door. Her mind went spinning back over the afternoon at school and after. “But this is my agenda too. I want your help figuring out how this happened to me. I’m convinced Gillian had something to do with it.”
The thought of Gillian sent a chill scurrying up her spine. Something bad had happened to her, Hasta was sure.
But Ivan was talking, and she lost hold of the thought. “Yeah, we’ll definitely work on that question,” he said. “What makes Hasta go from average kid—” He twisted an imaginary dial in the air. “—to human destructo-ray in a matter of—”
He let out a sudden yell and backed up several steps.
Hasta tensed. “What is it?”
Ivan pointed with a trembling finger. “The, the, the, the washing machine.”
She jumped down from the dryer and turned. The washer, which she’d been sitting right next to, had been white a few moments earlier—had always been white, from the moment the store had delivered it. But now it gleamed a cool, bright red.
Hasta’s mouth went dry. “Ivan, what just happened?”
He shook his head. Even when he lowered it, his arm would not stop shaking. “I don’t know. I was kind of pointing my arm that way, and when I twisted my hand the color changed.”
“Like, click, suddenly it was red?”
“No, not like that at all. It cycled through a bunch of different colors, like I was spinning some kind of dial. Red was just where I stopped.”
“Holy crap, Ivan.” Hasta looked from him to the washer and back. He was whiter than usual. “How do you feel?”
“A little woozy, I guess.”
“Do you need to sit down?”
He shook his head.
She grinned. “You feel up to trying it again?”
Ivan mustered a weak chuckle, lifting his arm. “Touché, H. I guess I should stop doubting you now, huh?”
Hasta raised her palms. “I didn’t say a word.”
“Well, here goes nothing.” Ivan’s arm shook, but staring at the red machine he cupped his fingers again and twisted.
In under a second, the washing machine shifted smoothly through several hues of red and orange. When Ivan dropped his arm, the color froze at a nasty shade of yellow-green that reminded Hasta of the aftermath of a particularly foul meal. Ivan released a heavy breath.
“Well,” Hasta said, amazed, reassured, and frightened in equal measure, “looks like I’m not the only one here with superpowers.”
A hoarse voice startled them both. “Madre de Dios,” said Juan, crouched halfway down the stairs. √
To be continued…