Discover more from William Shunn’s Main Wish Null
Root: Part II, Chapter 2
As Hasta and her friends regroup in the faculty lounge, bruised feelings and secrets complicate their attempts to strategize for survival.
For more on this project, please see “This Year a Serial Takes Root.”
Hasta stared at her haggard face in the girls’ room mirror. The fluorescent lighting turned her skin sallow and greenish. Her hair was messed up and coming loose from her ponytail, dark bags underhung her eyes, and an ugly bruise was blooming on her cheek where Dennis Clegg had punched her.
“You look like the end of the world,” she told her reflection. She bent and splashed her face with cold water.
Feeling fresher and more awake, Hasta retied her ponytail and pushed back out into the hallway. Juan was waiting for her near the front doors in the eerie green glow of the emergency exit signs. That afternoon the message on the letterboard in the glassed-in announcement case had been about recruiting sophomores for Pep Club. Now, though, as they’d seen when they entered the school, the white plastic letters had been rearranged to read:
PREPARE! THE END IS NEAR!
Juan leaned against the brick wall next to the case with casual insouciance. One corner of his mouth curved up, and a roguish light glinted from his eyes. “You look great,” he said.
Hasta smiled and looked down. A pleased glow radiated through her, outward from her heart. “I look like crap,” she said.
Juan pushed off from the wall, standing with a slight slouch, and ambled toward her. “You look like the chick in that video game. The archeologist.”
He put his arms around her, and Hasta found herself nestling her face against his warm chest. She tried not to think about the message on the wall, or about the detectives outside these doors, or about anything else. “Where’s Ivan?” she asked.
Everyone’s first stop inside had been the restrooms. “Faculty lounge,” said Juan. “Looking for coffee.”
“Can he get the door unlocked?”
She felt Juan shrug. “He said he’d open it or die trying.”
“That’s Ivan.” Hasta closed her eyes, letting the comfort of Juan’s embrace enfold her. It was the first time she’d let herself relax in hours. This moment couldn’t last, but she wanted to hold onto it.
“This is the strangest night ever,” Juan murmured.
Hasta didn’t want to think about any of the bad-strange parts of it right then. “I think the strangest part of all was having you in my house.”
Juan pulled back from her a little, looking down at her with concern. “Why?”
She shrugged and put her head back against his chest. “I didn’t want you to see it. I guess I thought the gods everywhere might freak you out.”
Juan chuckled, a sound that rumbled against her ear. “Hasta, you should see my house—Jesus everywhere, all bloody with his heart hanging out. You might freak.”
In answer, Hasta tightened her arms around his waist. Juan kissed the top of her head.
“Mmm,” Hasta said.
He kissed her again in the same spot, his lips lingering. “Hasta?” he said.
“Hasta . . . there’s something I need to tell you. Something important.”
Hasta tensed. “What is it?”
Juan took her by the shoulders and moved her away from him so he could stare down into her eyes. His mouth moved like he was about to say something. But then he leaned down and kissed her on the lips.
The bottom dropped out of her stomach. Her skin tingled like it was on fire.
“Juan,” she protested, coming up for air and trying not to melt as his gaze flicked all over her face.
He pressed his mouth to hers again. Hasta fought her racing pulse and pushed her palms against his chest.
“Juan, stop,” she said, turning her head as he tried to kiss her yet again.
“Why?” Juan said, pulling her to him.
She turned her shoulders, jerking out of his grasp. “It’s not the time. We need to catch up with Ivan.”
He hugged his chest and looked away, lips pursed. “Why are you being like this?”
Hasta heaved a sigh, threw her hands in the air, and started down the hall toward the back of the school. Where she’d felt unbearably warm a moment before, she now felt cold and shaky inside. “Because we’re in danger? Hello?”
“You like him, don’t you,” Juan said, following.
“Who—Ivan?” The thought made Hasta’s nose wrinkle. “Don’t be an idiot.”
“That’s why you won’t even hold my hand when he’s around.”
“I like you, Juan,” Hasta said, whirling on him. “Though you’re making it hard right now for me to remember why. Can we just concentrate on staying alive, please?”
Juan looked like he’d been slapped. His wide eyes sparkled wetly in the green light.
“God.” Fed up, Hasta grabbed his hand and dragged him unresisting past lockers and classrooms and down the long, central hallway toward the back of the school. “Are boys always this much trouble?” she muttered.
Around the far corner, bright fluorescent light spilled into the hallway from the open door of the faculty lounge. Hasta pulled Juan inside. Ivan was squatting in front of the open door of an old brown refrigerator, making a come-hither gesture at the contents.
“Dude, what are you doing?” Hasta asked, curious.
Ivan stood up fast, hands darting behind his back. “Just, uh, taking inventory,” he said, sounding guilty. He looked exhausted. “I kinda got distracted—you know, counting our food options.”
She knew how lost he could get, counting things. “Try to stay focused, okay?” she said. “But hey, you got this door unlocked.”
“Yeah, barely,” Ivan said, turning to the counter.
“It’s progress,” Hasta said brightly. She took a look around. Kitchen chairs with cracked vinyl seats surrounded a couple of mismatched tables, and a broken-down couch slouched against one wall. Besides the fridge, there was a vending machine stocked with candy bars, chips and some sad-looking fruit. Photos, flyers, and announcements festooned a corkboard on one wall. Thin orange curtains covered the windows at the back of the room, and rain beat against the glass. Ivan’s windbreaker was slung across the back of one of the chairs. Three cupboards over the sink stood open.
“So this is the teachers’ lounge?” Hasta said. “Reminds me of Hallowed Grounds, but not in a good way.”
“They furnished it with stuff even Hallowed Grounds wouldn’t take,” Ivan said. He was spooning heaps of instant coffee into a chipped ceramic mug that said Teachers Do It With Class! “Which includes this pointless freeze-dried coffee.”
Juan flopped down on the couch, his legs sticking way out in front of him. “Which you’re stealing,” he said, arms crossed.
“More like doing them a favor by getting rid of it,” Ivan said, running hot water from the tap into the mug.
Stomach growling, Hasta studied the selections in the vending machine. Everything but the fruit looked pretty appealing. She patted her pockets. “Anyone have any change?”
“I blew all my cash on our taxi,” said Juan. His legs were crossed at the ankles, and even though the temperature was comfortable he huddled deep in his parka.
“Ivan?” Hasta asked.
Ivan had set his mug down on the table, and now he took several boxes of dry cereal down from the open cupboards. “You know I’m tapped out.”
Hmm. Well, maybe she didn’t need change.
She frowned through the glass at a bag of Cheetos and made a fist. Concentrating on the bag, she raised her fist—one inch, two. The air above her knuckles seemed to grow spongy with resistance. Lungs laboring, she pushed harder.
The entire vending machine lifted a centimeter off the floor, shaking and wobbling.
“Whoa whoa whoa!” shouted Ivan. He sprang past Hasta to steady the heavy machine. She dropped her fist. The machine banged back to the floor. Ivan pressed himself against it as it rocked, hands gripping the top edge.
Hasta could see him trembling and took a step back. She ran into Juan, who put a hand on her shoulder. “I didn’t mean to do that,” she said.
Ivan let out a long breath. “These things are very dangerous,” he said. “They’re top-heavy, and it doesn’t take much to tip one over. People get crushed all the time trying to jiggle candy out of them.”
“Thanks for mansplaining that, Professor,” Hasta said. Her heart was pounding. “Otherwise I never would have known.”
“Sorry,” Ivan said. He nodded toward Hasta’s hand. “Where’d you learn that gesture?”
Hasta looked at her palm. “That was, um, what Dennis Clegg tried to do to me.”
Ivan threw his hands in the air. “Dennis knows this stuff? Why didn’t you mention that sooner? Total chaos, that’s what this is. I wonder who else knows.”
“I don’t care right now,” Hasta said. “Just—you two steady the vending machine.”
After a couple more tries, with Ivan and Juan braced against the machine, she managed to lift the Cheetos and drag them toward the glass. She unclenched her fist, the breath bursting out of her. Her prize dropped into the retrieval tray.
Hasta wiped her forehead, swaying a little but grinning. “Okay, now what do you guys want?”
A few minutes later they were all gathered around one of the tables, tearing into the mound of chips, cookies and other snacks piled against Ivan’s cereal boxes. Hasta also had a cold can of Diet Coke she’d pilfered from the fridge.
“I’ve stopped wondering what we can do,” Hasta said around a mouthful of Cheetos. She was tired, scared, and hungry, but on top of all that she felt tipsy with potential and hope. “Now I only wonder what we can’t do.”
When neither boy responded, Hasta stopped cramming orange junk into her mouth and looked at her two companions. That’s when she realized she was the only one stuffing her face. Juan sat slumped with his elbows on the table, pale-faced. Ivan was chewing a bite-sized chocolate-chip cookie like a robot, staring down at nothing.
“Guys, are you okay?” Hasta asked. “I know we’re trapped in here and it looks bad, but things’ll look better after we eat. We’ll figure out what to do.”
Ivan heaved a long sigh and took a sip of his coffee.
“Juan, come on,” she said. She ripped open a packet of Utz potato chips. “Here, salt and vinegar. These are great.”
He shook his head. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I really don’t feel very good.”
She shook a bunch of chips out onto the table in front of him. “Just try, okay? It might help you feel better.” Turning to Ivan, she said, “What about you?”
Ivan put another cookie in his mouth. When he turned his eyes up to meet her gaze, the expression she saw there frightened her more than any other single thing she’d seen that night. It was more than exhaustion, more than terror—more, even, than defeat. It looked like despair.
Hasta could barely find her voice. “Ivan, what is it?”
Ivan swallowed the cookie and chased it with coffee. He chewed the inside of his lip. “Nothing,” he said, looking down. “I’m fine. Just . . . tired.”
She could tell he was lying, but she wasn’t going to call him on it. “Fine,” she said. She brushed the orange dust off her hands and mouth and tore open a bag of trail mix. “But I’m warning you both, if you let me eat everything on this table myself, you’re in trouble.”
Ivan snickered a little. Juan’s smile appeared half-hearted, but he did pick up a chip and put it in his mouth.
“Okay, good,” she said. “Now, I’m going to play the part of Ivan here for a minute and point out that there are a few questions we still need to ask ourselves.”
“Then I’m going to play Hasta for a minute,” said Ivan. He leaned toward her and punched her in the arm.
“Ow!” It didn’t hurt very much, but as Hasta rubbed her arm she scrunched up her face in a parody of Ivan’s usual expression. “See? We’re getting somewhere already. Now, first question. Where did we get these powers from?”
“I saved up box tops and sent away for mine,” said Ivan.
Juan popped another chip into his mouth. “I’m not sure I see why it matters.”
Hasta pointed to the windows. “Those guys out there obviously think it’s wrong for us to have powers in the first place. Why? What did we do to get them? Maybe if we figure that out, it’ll help us figure out who they are and what they want with us.”
“But I didn’t do anything,” Ivan said. “It just happened.”
“Same with me,” said Juan. He stood up and went to the fridge.
“Something happened,” Hasta said. “Since I’m Ivan right now, just imagine me droning on about cause and effect.”
Ivan made a face and waved his fist in exaggerated warning. “No light came down from the sky, if that’s what you mean. I hadn’t even seen you do anything yet when I discovered the color-changing gesture.” He drummed his fingers on the table. “Except maybe I saw you unlock a couple of doors without knowing it.”
“Ivan with the washing machine was the first thing I saw,” Juan said, sitting down again with a Diet Coke. He popped the top. “Maybe it’s contagious.”
Hasta’s eyes met Ivan’s. “Oh, my God,” she said excitedly.
“Like a virus,” Ivan said. Something had caught fire again in his eyes. “Juan, you’re a genius.”
“Hey, I just work here,” Juan said.
The nuts, raisins, and M&M’s crammed into Hasta’s mouth suddenly lost their taste. She swallowed the lump. “But I didn’t see anything first,” she said. “Which blows that theory.”
Ivan took his coffee mug back to the counter. “Are you sure you didn’t see anything, H.? Someone making a strange gesture? Dennis Clegg can do this stuff, maybe other people too. Maybe you hadn’t caught the significance of it yet.”
Hasta thought back over the afternoon. It was in detention that things had first started getting strange.
“Gillian!” she said. “Doing something weird with her wrist. Drawing circles on it with her finger.”
Ivan’s brow crinkled. “Drawing circles?”
“Yeah,” said Hasta, pushing the sleeve of her sweatshirt up. “Like this.”
She traced a hasty circle on her wrist. A moment later she was blinking sleepily as she raised her head from the table.
“Jeez, Hasta!” Ivan said. He and Juan were kneeling to either side of her, their hands on her shoulders. “Are you okay?”
She sat up straight in her chair, looking back and forth between their two concerned faces. “Yeah, I think so.” She wiped what turned out to be orange crumbs from her forehead. “What happened?”
“You passed out,” said Juan, crushing her into a hug. “We couldn’t wake you up.”
Hasta patted his back and he let go. “For how long?”
“Like, three minutes,” Ivan said. His hand was on his chest as he dropped back into his chair.
“I didn’t feel any time pass at all.”
“It was like you were dead,” said Juan.
Hasta grinned. “That’s exactly what it was like for me with Gillian this afternoon.”
Ivan looked around, then went to the counter to retrieve his coffee mug. “Well, I guess that settles one question,” he said. “Gillian can do this stuff, and you could definitely have caught it from her.”
“The mind virus,” said Hasta.
“The meme,” Ivan said, bringing his mug back to the table.
“Holy crap,” said Hasta. “A meme.”
Juan’s looked confused. “What’s a meme? I mean, I’ve heard the word before . . .”
“Think about a gene,” Ivan said. “That’s basically a biological code that survives by copying itself from one generation to the next. A meme is similar, except it’s an idea that survives by copying itself from one brain to the next.”
“Creepy,” said Juan.
“Well, our whole culture’s made up of memes. Language is one way they spread—which is a kind weird, since language itself is a meme—but it’s not the only way.”
“Apparently you can catch a meme just by seeing someone else do something,” Juan said. “Even if you don’t understand what that something is. Which sounds pretty creepy to me.”
A clot of nuts seemed to stick in Hasta’s throat. “A dozen or more people must’ve seen Dennis hoist me into the air—and me flip him out of there.”
Ivan whistled. “If everyone who saw it caught it,” he said, “this thing could go viral.”
“I wonder if that’s how the world ends,” Hasta said. “Everyone flipping everyone else into oblivion.”
Juan toyed with his empty chip bag. “I don’t feel so good again.”
“We don’t know for sure how wide this could go,” Hasta said. “But we do know the other cases are part of Bobby’s gang. Maybe drift has something to do with it.”
“How could it?” said Ivan, looking down at his hands. “Have you ever tried drift?”
Juan was tearing a strip off the foil bag.
“Good point,” she said to Ivan. “Still, I’d say Dennis and the rest are our best lead. Except we can’t chase any leads while we’re stuck in here.”
Ivan tapped a thumbnail against his teeth, then pushed his chair back and stood up. “Time for another experiment.”
Ivan shoved the snack wrappers aside and arranged the five cereal boxes like a line of dominos, with only an inch or two between each one and the next.
“Overlap test,” he said, squaring the boxes up as best he could. “Something we might very much want to know.”
With a loud sigh, Juan went to the windows. He lifted the edge of one curtain and stared out into the stormy night.
Ivan shot a glance in Juan’s direction, then moved his coffee mug away from the cereal boxes. “Okay, H., to calibrate, do you think you can flip this mug about six inches?”
“I’ll try,” said Hasta.
Out on the field with Juan, she’d been getting a pretty good feel for flipping blocks small distances, so she felt confident as she moved around the table and raised her middle finger. She tried to fix the short span in her mind, picturing the mug in its new position. She jabbed.
With a clatter, the mug moved a handspan from where it had been. The coffee sloshed inside but didn’t splash out.
“Excellent,” said Ivan. He grabbed the mug and set it directly in front of the first cereal box. “Dude,” he said to Juan, “you might want to pay attention to this.”
Juan rolled his eyes and came back to the table.
“This time,” said Ivan, “shoot for the same distance, but aim the mug into these boxes.”
“I get it.” Hasta measured the distance with her eyes. “What happens if two objects try to occupy the same space? I hope they don’t, like, explode.”
Hasta looked at Juan. He was watching the mug. His tongue touched his upper lip. She focused on the mug, pictured the distance, and jabbed. The mug vanished, clattering into existence just past the last box in the line—a distance of about a foot and a half.
Hasta grinned. “I didn’t send it that far, I’m sure.”
“I’m sure you didn’t,” said Ivan, raising the mug in a toast. “My guess is, since it was a little too big to fit inside or between any of these cereal boxes, it just kept going until there was an open space. Which means, hopefully, that you can’t put a solid object into a space already occupied by something else.”
Juan smoothed his scraggly mustache. “And we care about this because . . . ?”
“Because in here we’re contained,” said Hasta, who’d played enough RPGs with Ivan to know how his strategy mind worked. “We’re sitting ducks.”
Ivan gathered up the cereal boxes to put them away again. “Those creepazoids aren’t going to stand around with their thumbs in their asses hoping we make a run for it. They’ll try to flush us out. Set the place on fire, maybe. Flood it. Fill it with rats, who knows? But now we know, if it comes to it, we can flip each other out of here without worrying about embedding ourselves in brick walls.”
Juan paced the small room. “But only two of us would be able to get out that way.”
“True,” said Ivan. “Last person left has no one to flip them. Which means maybe one of us should just flip Hasta out of here right now so she can make a run for it.”
Hasta hugged herself. A stony coldness burned deep in her chest. “No way,” she said. “You guys stuck by my side. I won’t abandon you here. Anyway, where would I run to? Wherever I landed, the detectives would home right in on me. That’s how they found us, you know.”
“We’re never getting out of here,” said Juan. He, too, was hugging himself—sweating and shaking a little. Hasta found this unsettling.
“We’ll get out of here somehow,” Ivan said. “Don’t worry.” He grabbed his windbreaker. “For the moment, how about we do some reconnaissance? Take a peek at our besiegers.”
“I’m down with that,” said Hasta, stuffing a last Oreo into her mouth.
They were heading for the door when the lights went out. √
To be continued…