Discover more from William Shunn’s Main Wish Null
Root: Part I, Chapter 8
Juan manages to insert himself into Hasta and Ivan's adventure, as Hasta finds herself in deeper trouble than just with her father.
For more on this project, please see “This Year a Serial Takes Root.”
Juan didn’t even realize he’d spoken until both Hasta and Ivan were staring at him. They looked as guilty as if he’d just caught them feeling each other up.
“Juan!” Hasta said from beside the disgustingly colored washing machine. “What are you doing here?”
He straightened up as he came slowly the rest of the way down the stairs. He kept looking back and forth between her and the washer. He wondered whether or not she was upset, and how much attention he could pay to the freaky thing he’d just seen.
He could generally tell what a girl was thinking, but Hasta was a stubborn mystery. Juan had met Ivan freshman year but hadn’t really met Hasta until he and Ivan became lab partners this year. He hadn’t thought much of her at first, but over the past month something about her had gotten under his skin. She was smart, funny, and sarcastic, but the bizarre thing was how sexy he found the natural, careless way she presented herself. She couldn’t have been more different from the girls he normally went for. It was obvious Hasta was going places.
Though only sixteen, Juan already knew he didn’t want to end up in Chicago all his life. Not that it was bad here, but it was going to be hard to break away from his party crowd if he stuck around, at least not without a different social circle. When he had spotted Hasta heading off to the stadium yesterday after school, he’d tagged along after her, thinking it would be good for more than one reason to get to know her better one on one.
Somehow, though, Hasta dodged all the questions that usually made girls open up, and she turned them back on him. He didn’t want to talk about his family, so instead he kissed her. Which was pretty awesome but was not at all what he’d intended to do.
He’d acted all cool at school today, but this girl really threw him off his game. He wanted to explain that they’d jumped the gun and to ask her out properly, but at some point that afternoon she’d stopped returning his casual texts. By then he couldn’t get her out of his head—he had to see her, and he even felt a vague sense of unease about her safety. So he’d looked up her family’s address, hopped on the bus, braved her father at the front door, and here he was.
Just in time to see—whatever this was.
Hasta crossed her arms, so Juan went straight to the washing machine instead. He ran his hand across the cool surface. The yellow-green enamel paint was perfectly dry. He had gotten over his initial shock and realized now that he couldn’t have seen what he thought he’d seen. He looked at Ivan, who was bent over panting.
“Pretty cool trick,” Juan said, grinning like he was in on the joke. “How do you do it? Colored lights, remote control, what?”
Ivan lowered himself to the concrete floor and sat breathing heavily, arms on his knees. Hasta rushed to him, ignoring Juan.
“You okay?” she said, stooping beside him. “Are you going to pass out? Throw up?”
Weakly Ivan said, “I’ll be all right.”
Again Juan grew unsure of himself. Why was she being so attentive to Ivan? Was there something going on between them?
“Can I get him some water?” he asked, looking around for a tap.
Hasta pointed toward a door in a wall where the two-by-fours and electrical conduits were still exposed. The bathroom inside was hung with unfinished drywall. He stared at himself for a moment in the mirror over the tiny sink. His hair looked fine, his fine mustache not too scraggly, his shiny green coat with the fur-trimmed hood adding the right down-to-earth touch. “Pull yourself together, man,” he said to his reflection. “You’re only intruding if you feel like an intruder.”
When he emerged from the bathroom with a brimming Dixie cup, Ivan was shaking his lowered head as Hasta, crouched beside him, whispered something. She clammed up immediately, but Juan crouched right down on Ivan’s other side and helped him drink a little. There’s nothing weird going on here, he told himself.
“Better?” Hasta asked.
She patted his shoulder and looked at Juan. Her brown eyes were grim. “Juan, what are you doing here?”
He didn’t know why she kept asking that. The answer should be obvious. “I kept texting you but you didn’t answer. You too, Ivan.”
Hasta sighed sharply, stood up, and fetched a backpack from over by the old couch.
“Dude,” Ivan whispered, shaking his head, “she likes some warning before people come over for the first time. FYI.”
Having patted all the outside pockets, Hasta was now digging through the backpack. “Great,” she said. “Now, I can’t find my phone. Ivan, I must have lost it when I took off on your bike.”
“Maybe it’s not the best time to bring this up,” Juan said, standing, “but your father wanted me to tell you dinner’s in thirty minutes, and that’s when Ivan and I have to leave. He’s really nice, by the way.”
Hasta flung her backpack down on the couch, then flung herself down next to it, arms tightly crossed. “How much did you see, Juan?”
He looked back and forth between her and Ivan, trying on a cautious smile. “Look, I know you guys like to play secret agent and wizards and stuff. That’s cool.” He spread his arms and coughed up a weak chuckle. “But I know you guys don’t have any superpowers.”
Hasta took a deep breath, staring off to one side, one arm stretched out along the top of the couch. Despite her small size, she looked so strong and in-charge that Juan just wanted to pick her up and get close to her.
“Can I trust you, Juan?” she asked, boring into him with her eyes. “If you say yes, then you’re with us and you have to treat the stuff we tell you seriously. If not, that’s fine. We won’t hold it against you. You can just walk upstairs and go back home.” She waited.
Juan looked down at Ivan, who only put his hand over his face and shook his head.
“Well?” Hasta said.
“What am I agreeing to, exactly? I mean, is this a game or what?”
“I have no idea what this is,” Hasta said. She didn’t crack a smile. “It’s a mystery, it’s a quest—who knows what it is. All I can tell you is, it’s no game. It might even be dangerous.”
Juan gave a little laugh to cover up his sudden nervousness. This was not at all what he’d expected when he came over, but if it meant he got to hang out with Hasta more and see what made her tick? “I’m in,” he said with a lazy shrug.
Hasta sprang up from the couch, all coiled energy. “What about you, Ivan? You okay with Juan coming along?”
With a groan, Ivan pushed himself to his feet. Juan reached out to help him, but Ivan waved off his help with a glare. “Do I have a choice?”
“Not really,” said Hasta, coming up to them both. She extended her fist. “So, all for one and one for all?”
Juan put his fist on top of hers, and Ivan put his on top of Juan’s. A tingle ran up Juan’s arm when all their fists came together. He jerked back in surprise, but to his greater surprise he realized that he was smiling, as were Hasta and Ivan. He felt happier, lighter, like some weight he hadn’t known he was carrying had lifted from his shoulders.
“All right, boys,” Hasta said, “we’re on a mission. Or at least we’re in search of a mission. Juan, Ivan can fill you in on the details as soon as I throw you both out of here. But first, Ivan—make my parents’ washing machine white again, will you?”
And to Juan’s amazement, again, that’s exactly what Ivan did.
Hasta saw the boys off at the door with her father at her shoulder wiping his hands on a dishtowel. She trailed him back into the kitchen, where the sauces bubbling on the stove steamed the windows. Her father kissed her on the forehead.
“Good girl,” he said. “I know grounding is hard, but thank you for your uncomplaining obedience. Like Rama of old, you will be blessed for it.”
Hasta stood there looking at the floor. He was only making it harder for her to sneak out.
Her father went to the stove to stir the makhani sauce. “I like that young man Juan, by the way. He seems to have a good head on his shoulders. Very polite.”
Another twist of the knife. Hasta wondered if he was only saying that so she’d stop being interested in Juan. “I have to straighten up the family room,” she said, the humidity of the kitchen thick in her nose and throat. She didn’t look her father in the eye. “I’ll only be a few minutes.”
She rushed downstairs, where she retrieved her backpack and started filling it with wooden blocks and other old toys from the dusty chest. Her thoughts were all jumbled up around Juan. She was thrilled that he’d come looking for her, but mortified that he’d now seen the inside of her house. And what about Ivan, and the weird way they’d acted around each other? Had she done the right thing bringing Juan into this? It had seemed so right at the moment when they all touched fists, but now she was starting to second-guess herself.
Backpack loaded, Hasta shut off the lights and let herself out the basement door into the concrete stairwell out back. She was almost to the top of the stairs, emerging from beneath the back deck in the cold night air, when she heard whispering voices from the direction of the garage. An idling car engine, too. The motion-sensing lights were on, blinding her. She squinted as she emerged into the yard.
“Ivan? Juan?” she said.
“Hey, that’s her!” someone hissed. “Grab her!”
It was male voice, but it wasn’t Ivan or Juan.
Hasta whirled back toward the stairs, but two shapes were already rushing toward her from out of the brightness. √
To be continued…