Discover more from William Shunn’s Main Wish Null
Root: Part II, Chapter 3
Hasta and her friends discover they’re not alone inside their night-bound high school, and Juan decides to take a certain matter into his own hands.
For more on this project, please see “This Year a Serial Takes Root.”
Hasta froze in the sudden blackness. Juan bumped into her from behind. “Oof!” she said, groping for the edge of the counter to steady herself. “Watch it.”
“What happened?” asked Juan, a note of panic in his voice. “Ivan, did you turn the lights off?”
“Wasn’t me,” Ivan said from the direction of the door. A flicking sound followed. “Power’s off.”
Hasta slid her hand down Juan’s arm and interlaced her fingers with his. “They’re coming in after us,” she said.
“What do we do?” said Juan.
Hasta squeezed his clammy hand. “I say go see what we’re up against.”
“But the lights are out,” Juan said, his voice cracking. “We can’t see anything.”
A grim smile stretched Hasta’s cheeks as she let go of Juan and held her circled hand to her right eye. “That may be what they think.”
Through the opening she could see Juan’s face in stark shades of gray. His pupils were huge as he put his own hand to his eye. Their eyes met and he let out a relieved breath.
“Oh, yeah, I forgot,” he said. “Still, do you think it’s wise to go out there?”
“If they’ve seen the lights on through these windows, they know exactly where to find us,” Ivan said. “Would you rather stay here and wait for them to show up?”
“I wouldn’t,” said Hasta. Not waiting to hear any arguments, she darted to the door and slipped past Ivan into the hallway. She looked both ways, with and without the scope. An exit sign glowed at the end of the hall to her left. She counted three more spaced out down the long hall to her right. If the school’s power had in fact been cut, the signs must be running on battery backup.
The teachers’ lounge was at the back of the school. With Ivan and Juan right behind her, Hasta tiptoed past a short row of lockers to the corner of the central hallway and peeked around it.
The front entrance to the school was sixty yards or more away. By the greenish light of a tiny exit sign, she could see two small figures lurking there, maybe three. One of them raised its arm toward the exit sign, which winked out like a candle.
Hasta looked through her hand. In clear monochrome, she could see a bearded man walking toward them up the center of the hallway. To his left, a thin Black kid with glasses and a backpack paused to try each classroom door. To his right, a white kid in a letter jacket kept one hand out in front of him while he dragged the other along the lockers he passed, raising a faint metallic clamor.
Hasta pulled her head back around the corner. She bumped into Ivan, who had crowded in close beside her. “That’s Bobby Kimball!” she whispered. “He’s okay.”
“And he can’t see,” Ivan whispered. “But the other two look like they can, and they’re heading our way.”
“Upstairs,” Hasta said. “Maybe we can get around behind them and see what they’re up to.”
“Let’s hope they’re the only ones in here,” said Juan.
Scoping their way with circled hands, they retreated along the back hallway as quickly and silently as they could, passing the open teachers’ lounge and continuing up the staircase at the far corner of the school. It was even gloomier on the second floor, the emergency exit lights fewer and farther between. Hasta gripped Juan’s hand tightly as she led them around to the front of the school and back along the central corridor. At the top of a stairwell near the very center of the building, she gathered the boys into a huddle.
“All I want to do is find out what these guys are up to,” she said. “Let’s only flip them if we have to. If anyone gets separated from us and gets caught, yell out where you are.” It was essentially what she and Ivan did when they were gaming together and got into trouble. “Yell it as loud as you can.”
Juan was glancing around in the dim light, rubbing his hands together as if he were cold. “This isn’t a video game, you know.”
Hasta gave him a sharp look. “I never said it was.”
“Listen,” he said, “instead of all this sneaking around, I could, you know, try talking to Bobby down there, ask what they want. I know him a little.”
Hasta scoped Juan’s face. He didn’t look scared so much as sick. It was hard to tell how pale he might have been, but sweat was pouring down his face. “Juan, are you okay?”
“I’m fine,” he said, and swallowed. “Just thinking there might be a safer way to find out what you want to know.”
“I appreciate that,” Hasta said, “but that doesn’t sound very safe to me.”
“Me neither,” Ivan said.
Juan sighed. “Then after you.”
The stairwell was a pool of darkness leading downward. Steeling herself, Hasta descended. She heard Ivan close behind her.
The corridor below was where the intruders had just passed, dousing exit lights. At the bottom of the stairs, Hasta peered cautiously in both directions. No one in sight. She crept down the hallway toward the back of the school.
She began to hear faint voices as she approached the end of the hall. She scoped around the corner to the right. Twenty yards away, the man with the white beard was standing alone outside the open door to the teachers’ lounge, arms folded. He wore glasses and a tweed jacket. The Black boy emerged from the room and said something unintelligible to him.
Ivan was leaning over her to peer around the corner above her head. He tapped her on the shoulder and they both drew back.
“I thought I recognized that guy before,” Ivan whispered in her ear. “It’s Mr. Sunshine, from middle school.”
“The math teacher?” said Hasta.
“He didn’t have a beard then, but I’m sure it’s him.”
A cold fear gripped Hasta suddenly. She looked past Ivan, back the way they’d just come.
“Ivan,” she whispered. “Where’s Juan?”
Hating himself at every step, Juan hurried down the second-floor hallway toward the back of the school. He went as fast as he possibly could without his sneakers making sound, and he kept looking back into the darkness over his shoulder. I’ll be back with them in less than a minute, he told himself. They’ll barely even know that I was gone.
At the end of the hall he darted around the corner and stood panting with his back against the cool bricks. He grimaced as a cramp twisted his stomach. Sweat stung his eyes. He didn’t want to do this, but he’d never felt a hunger for drift so acute as this. Sure, on occasion he’d felt a mild craving, but it was easy to quash with just a snort or two at some late-night weekend party. He’d never been one of those sorry, zonked-out losers you heard about, holed up in the basement of that bar called the Cradle, unable or unwilling even to get up and take a leak lest they transgress the sad sanctity of their high. That wasn’t him.
But somehow tonight he couldn’t keep his head from flipping, his tongue from dripping, his fingers from itching. He couldn’t take one more judgmental look from Ivan, and all the suspicious probing from Hasta was going to drive him over the edge. He wanted to tell her, he did, and he was going to, but the moment kept being not quite right.
A little taste. That was he needed. A little taste and he could get his head on straight, he could be there for Hasta, he could do everything he needed to do to straighten out all this weirdness and get everything resolved safely. He could work things out between Bobby and everyone else, and together they could deal with the freaky freaks outside and figure out why everything was going so crazy. Everyone could win, and he could be Hasta’s hero for a change.
“How about that, Ivan?” he muttered, licking his dry lips.
Fortunately, he knew where he could get that taste to help himself push on through. He scoped the hall the way he’d just come to make sure he wasn’t being followed, then hurried back that direction. Frida Sandstrom had a stash in her locker—or, at least, he was almost certain that’s what Erin Geraghty had chucked inside it after lunch that afternoon.
Juan still couldn’t believe a nice, fun chick like Frida could have been involved in kidnapping Hasta out of her backyard, and he couldn’t imagine why that crew would have done it in the first place. Whatever the reason, he was sure it was all a misunderstanding, and he was the one who could get it straightened out.
All he needed was that taste to keep his head together.
Frida’s locker was about halfway back to the stairwell. He scoped the narrow metal doors through his circled hand until he spotted the one with the little eyeball scratched into the yellow paint. That was it.
He grasped the handle between his fingers and took a wheezing breath. He didn’t know the combination, but with these bizarre powers he didn’t need it. The handle moved smoothly when he pushed it up, with only the barest hint of friction. He swung the tall door open and reached past a couple of books on the top shelf. No secret lay beyond his reach, no scheme beyond his—
A brilliant, silent flash of white light exploded through Juan’s head. Something cold and hard smacked his body from behind. The world spun.
He blinked, unable to move, staring into foggy darkness. At last a face hove into view, a thin Black face with wire-rimmed glasses that reflected a nearby exit sign. Cory White, staring down at him.
“Well, who on earth are you?” Cory asked. A senior this year, he was in charge of operations at the Cradle. His voice seemed to come from a million miles away. “And how did you spring my little trap?”
Juan could neither move nor resist in any way as the older boy rolled him over onto his stomach. His eyes drifted shut, and it was only a distant part of him that screamed in terror as his wrists were wrenched together behind his back. √
To be continued…