Discover more from William Shunn’s Main Wish Null
Root: Part I, Chapter 9
While Ivan and Juan discover that their goals and tactics may not quite align, an imminent crisis forces them to put their differences aside.
For more on this project, please see “This Year a Serial Takes Root.”
“You must be kidding me,” Juan said.
Ivan raised his arm to the square, putting on his sincerest expression. “Partner, I kid you not.”
Juan tilted his head. “Come on, seriously.”
“What can I tell you?” Ivan said. “That’s the story in a nutshell. Take it or leave it. You saw what I did.”
“I saw something,” Juan said dubiously. He scratched the patch of fine hair that passed for a sideburn. “But what you’re telling me—things vanishing, weird messages, men in trench coats? It’s a lot to swallow.”
Ivan peered down the street toward Hasta’s house. He and Juan were crouched behind a screen of vegetation about half a block east in an undeveloped lot thick with skinny trees, bushes and ivy. He couldn’t stop running his thumb along the bark of the tree beside him as they waited for Hasta to join them.
He couldn’t really blame Juan for feeling the way he did, but it did annoy him. Not that Ivan disliked him—or at least, he hadn’t before he found out that Juan had designs on his best friend. He wasn’t sure how he felt about that. But Hasta had been pretty clear about what she wanted.
“Don’t worry, dude,” Ivan said. “It took me a while to get on board with it, too.”
Juan stood up with a loud rustle, hand on his hips. “Just come clean, man. What’s really going on?”
“Get down!” Ivan hissed. “Someone’ll see you!”
“Yeah, what if they do?”
Ivan grabbed Juan’s wrist and tugged. “Dude, the brown sedan could be out there. You gotta think like a commando.”
“I’m sixteen years old,” Juan said, yanking his arm free. “I’m through playing commando.”
Ivan gaped at him. “But you swore. You stood there in Hasta’s basement and swore you were with us.”
“I’m with her. This—this running around playing make-believe? It’s stupid. Whatever’s going on, I think you’re just egging her on, and someone could get seriously hurt.”
“Someone could get hurt,” Ivan said, stunned. A knot of frustration clogged his throat. “That’s why we need to—to—”
“To play with toys on the football field? You think you might be in danger, and that’s your plan? That tells me how not serious this is. God, you’re helpless in the real world.”
Ivan suddenly hated everything about Juan, from his expensive sneakers to his stupid, scraggly mustache. “I’m not helpless.”
“Oh, I forgot, you can turn people pink. Maybe the bad guys will die of embarrassment.” Juan crunched away through the dark foliage.
Ivan hurried after him. “Why are you being such a jerk?”
Juan had reached the sidewalk. “Hasta needs to grow up,” he said, swinging around, “and you’re obviously not helping.”
He looked like he was about to say more, but headlights bathed his face in a harsh spectral light as a car turned onto the street. They both raised hands to shield their eyes from the glare, and Ivan felt a stab of fear for Hasta. Was this the brown sedan?
But no. The car was some newish model that lurched and hitched as it passed them, as if someone who couldn’t drive was at the wheel. Still, Ivan couldn’t shake the sense that Hasta was in danger.
“Ivan, listen,” said Juan, “I know I haven’t known her very long, but does she even have any other friends besides you?”
Ivan took a few steps in the direction of Hasta’s house. “Yeah, Bobby Kimball, apparently,” he said over his shoulder, a little distractedly. “What does it matter?”
Juan sighed loudly. “See, you’re being sarcastic, but that’s just another thing about this story that doesn’t make any sense. Why would Bobby chase her down and try to hurt her? He’s a nice guy.”
“Are you serious?” Ivan said. He’d been pulling out his cell phone, but now he turned back to Juan. In the distance the car jerked and squealed around a corner. “What, are you friends with him?”
Juan shrugged. “We hang out sometimes.”
A horrible suspicion twisted Ivan’s gut. “Like at parties? Drift parties? Dude, are you on drift?”
Juan made a derisive face. “What? No. I mean, I’ve tried it a few times, but that doesn’t mean I’m on it.”
“A few times. What does that mean? How many times?”
“I don’t know. Five, six.”
“Oh, God.” Ivan turned in a circle, running a hand through his hair. “You’re lecturing me about growing up, and all this time you’ve been doing drift? Juan, how am I supposed to trust you now? Oh, God.”
“Look, it’s not that big a deal,” Juan said, spreading his hands, looking angry and defensive.
Ivan paced up and down the sidewalk. “Not that big a deal? Tell that to Adele MacLeod and Brand Banks. Oh, man.”
“It’s fine if you’re not stupid about it, just like alcohol. Come on, you can’t tell me you’ve never tried beer or wine.”
Ivan thought about the empty bottles his mother left lying around, the ones he always had to clean up in the morning. “No way. Never.”
Juan shook his head. “Then you’re a freak. And anyway, with drift, I only do a little sometimes at parties. It’s a good way to chill out, helps you clear your head.”
“Yeah, I bet,” Ivan said, shaking his head. “Cleared Brand Banks’s head right out. Crap, I don’t know what to do now. I have to talk to Hasta.”
He took out his phone. Hasta’s family’s landline wasn’t on speed-dial, so he scrolled through his address book.
“Hey, look,” Juan said, “you don’t have to do that. I’m sorry about everything I said. I didn’t mean to slag you.”
Ivan punched the call button. The line bleated a couple of times. His stomach hurt.
“Please, man,” Juan said.
Hasta’s father answered. “Veeramachaneni household.”
“Hey, Mr. V., this is Ivan calling. Could I talk to Hasta for a minute, please?”
“I was going to ask you the same thing,” Mr. V. said sharply. “Are you telling me she’s not with you?”
Ivan looked at Juan, his veins running cold. “That’s what I’m saying.”
“Are you sure, Ivan? She went downstairs and didn’t come back up. When I went to look for her, I couldn’t find her.”
“What is it?” Juan asked.
Ivan stared daggers at him, sick inside. Part of him wanted to tell Hasta’s father to call the police, but then say what to them? “Mr. V., I have to go. I’ll call back later.”
“But Ivan, what—”
Ivan broke the connection.
Juan’s face was a mask of dread. “What’s going on?”
“Hasta’s not there, okay?”
Juan nodded. “Well, she’s probably just on her way here.” But then he grabbed Ivan’s arm, right where Hasta always punched him. “Listen, you weren’t really going to tell her, right?”
Ivan shrugged out of his grip. “She’s missing. Let’s have this conversation later.”
“Ivan, please.” In the dim light from a nearby streetlamp, Juan’s face was a wild-eyed skull. “I really like her. Don’t tell her.”
“That’s so messed up,” Ivan said, shaking his head. “All right, this is the deal. I won’t tell her about the drift—but you have to.”
Juan groaned. “Come on.”
“No, I’m serious.” Ivan felt a horrendous need to do something building up inside him. “This is my best friend we’re talking about. She needs us, but if you don’t promise me now, then I’m leaving you here and telling her the second I find her.”
“You’re killing me here,” Juan said. “All right, all right. I promise.”
“I’m holding you to that,” Ivan said. The pressure was almost too much for him. “Now keep your trap shut for a second and let me think.”
He stood with his head down, a hand cupped over his mouth, frantically trying to concentrate while Juan paced nearby. What could have happened to Hasta? Where was she? For some reason Ivan pictured her in a car, but the only one they’d seen was not a brown sedan.
Of course, those creepy detective guys might not be the only ones who wanted a word with her.
“Crap,” Ivan said, his gaze snapping up to meet Juan’s. “That car a minute ago. You didn’t notice which way it turned, did you?” √
To be continued…