Discover more from William Shunn’s Main Wish Null
Root: Part II, Chapter 4
A dangerous game of cat-and-mouse in the dark leads to an object that's difficult to pick up. But just because you can pick it up, should you?
For more on this project, please see “This Year a Serial Takes Root.”
When she realized that Ivan hadn’t seen where Juan had gone either, Hasta tried to slip past him and run back down the black hallway to the stairwell, but Ivan seized her by the arm.
“You told us to yell if we got in trouble,” he hissed in her ear. “Did you hear him yell?”
“Couldn’t you see how sick he was?” Hasta hissed back. “What if he’s lying passed out somewhere?”
Ivan let out a deep sigh. “Stupid Juan,” he muttered. “Just—let’s make sure it’s not a suicide mission before you run off all half-cocked.”
Hasta seethed with a cold, deep, fearful anger. Where was he? Antsy and anxious, she peered around the corner into the back hallway. Mr. Sunshine and the boy with the glasses and the backpack were both still there, but now she saw Bobby Kimball grope his way out of the teachers’ lounge, his hands feeling along the wall. He was saying something snide, she could tell from his tone, but she couldn’t make out the words.
Suddenly Mr. Sunshine and the other boy both looked toward the same spot on the ceiling. The older man pointed urgently to the far end of the hall, and the boy ran off that way toward the stairwell, holding his two hands to his eyes like binoculars. Mr. Sunshine seized Bobby by the collar of his jacket and dragged him the other way—toward where Hasta and Ivan were concealed.
She jerked back. “Here they come!” she whispered, grabbing Ivan’s hand. “Run!”
As they raced back down the hallway, Hasta could hear Bobby’s voice behind them, loud with protest and complaint. She and Ivan ducked into the central stairwell and pressed their backs against the wall, panting.
“What now?” Hasta asked.
“Shh,” Ivan said.
Bobby’s whining voice was more audible now. “—clue what’s going on, boss. Can’t you just—”
Suddenly the words were coming from the other end of the hall, near the front doors.
“—tell me wh—yeowwwwww!—”
And now the voice was screaming.
“What the heck?” Hasta said.
“I think Bobby just got flipped,” Ivan whispered.
“Not you too, boss!” Bobby was saying. “I don’t get this! Has the whole world gone nuts today?”
As his voice spiraled back toward hysteria, it also drew closer. Hasta made a move toward the first stair up, but Ivan touched her arm.
“Wait,” he whispered. “I think Mr. Sunshine’s trying to confuse us, flush us out.”
“I mean, first this dothead chick,” Bobby went on, getting closer, “and now you too?”
Hasta could feel her heartbeat in her ears. If Bobby could see in the dark, then she and Ivan would be perfectly visible once he drew even with the stairwell. But she reminded herself that he couldn’t. She scoped the empty segment of hallway.
“I want some answers, boss!” said Bobby, almost upon them. “I’m a valuable employee. I don’t like being kept in the dark. I—”
Suddenly his voice was echoing from some other reach of the school—indistinct, incomprehensible, and even more angry. Hasta clapped a hand over her mouth as Mr. Sunshine walked slowly past their hiding place. He had one hand to his eye and the other holding something to his ear.
“Yes, now perhaps I can hear myself think,” he was saying quietly. “So you have one of them, you say? Just hold tight for two shakes. This shouldn’t take long.”
As Mr. Sunshine passed out of sight, heading toward the front of the school, Hasta stood on tiptoe and whispered in Ivan’s ear, “He’s talking about Juan. We have to help him.”
Quietly she padded out of the stairwell and into the hallway. Left hand to her eye, she watched Mr. Sunshine’s tweed-covered back recede. Pushing down her moral qualms, she extended her middle finger and cleared her throat.
Mr. Sunshine stopped, slowly lowering his hand from his ear. The only sound was Bobby’s continuous distant shouting. Mr. Sunshine whirled.
Hasta jabbed. The man’s arms flew wide. Something black and glinting popped out of his hand as he stumbled backward and vanished.
“One down!” Ivan said, emerging from the stairwell.
Hasta sank shaking to her knees. Her stomach roiled. “Wasn’t a solid hit,” she said, hands braced on her thighs. “It was like my fingertip skidded off him a little. But hopefully that buys us some time.”
“He dropped something,” Ivan said. His voice crisscrossed the hall ahead of her. “There was this little green flash, but I can’t— Oh, here it is. Wow, is this hard to pick up.”
Bobby was still yelling. “That guy’s got some lungs on him,” Hasta said. “God, I wish he’d shut up.”
She pushed herself unsteadily to her feet and groped her way to a wall. The blackness reeled around her. She pressed her back against the cold metal of a locker.
“Got it,” Ivan said. His footsteps crossed to where she stood. “Look at this thing. I had to slide my school i.d. underneath it to pick it up.”
Hasta scoped the black rectangle on Ivan’s outstretched palm. It was a little smaller than an iPhone and thinner than a sheet of paper.
“It’s like those squares the detectives were setting up outside the school,” Ivan said.
“I think Mr. Sunshine was talking into that,” said Hasta. “But next shouldn’t we worry about—?” The sound of a slamming door echoed through the school, and Bobby’s angry shouts could no longer be heard. “Okay, I was about to say ‘Bobby,’ so I guess not.”
“Heh,” said Ivan. He took the rectangle carefully by the edges and put it near his ear. “Hey, listen,” he whispered and held it to Hasta’s ear.
“—going on, boss?” said a young male voice, clear as day. “Are you there? I can’t babysit this kid all night. Um, boss? Uh-oh.”
There was a loud rustling sound, and the rectangle went silent.
“He hung up,” Hasta said. “But that’s the other kid, it must be. Find him and we’ll find Juan.” She headed toward the stairwell.
“Wait,” Ivan said. He slid the rectangle into the inside breast pocket of his windbreaker. “We assume he’s still upstairs, but it’d be nice to know for sure before we go rushing off into some trap.”
Ivan led the way to the front of the school. Hasta followed, still shaky and sick, and more than a little impatient. It took Ivan three tries to open the door to the main office. Inside, he pushed through the gate in the front counter into the receptionist’s area.
“Here we go,” he said.
Through her hand, Hasta scoped a grid of six small video monitors on a shelf beneath the counter. “Security cameras?” she said. “But the power’s out.”
“That might not entirely be an obstacle.” He reached toward the monitors and twisted his imaginary dial. The screens sprang to life with a click and a barely audible whine.
“Hey, how did you do that?” Hasta asked. “I thought that was a color-changing gesture.”
The black-and-white monitors cast a glow that made Ivan’s face look like a skull. “Apparently it has more uses than that. Mr. Sunshine was using it to turn off all those exit signs.”
Two of the monitors showed views out the front and back of the school, while the other four cycled through different interior cameras, with the feeds switching every five seconds or so. Each image was digitally stamped with a two-digit number.
Hasta was scanning the interior feeds for any sign of Juan or the boy with the backpack when Ivan peremptorily tapped the front exterior monitor. Mr. Sunshine, foreshortened by the camera angle, was standing at the bottom of the front steps, glaring up at the doors. He was soaked to the skin, tweed jacket dirty, white hair askew. He wiped his glasses on the untucked tail of his shirt and put them back on. The rain immediately obscured the lenses again.
Standing behind him, soaked and bedraggled, was Bobby Kimball. Mr. Sunshine started up the steps, took a step back, and grabbed Bobby by the ear.
“Back for round two,” Hasta said. “We need to hide.”
“And there’s no time to close that outer door,” said Ivan. “Crap, they’ll know we’re in here.”
Hasta darted to the door into Principal Armisted’s private office. It was locked, but that couldn’t keep her out. “Quick, in here.”
Ivan scampered after her into the tiny, dark office. Hasta eased the door shut behind them. Rain beat steadily against the glass behind the drawn blinds. They each pressed an ear against the door.
Moments later they heard Mr. Sunshine’s voice in the front office. “No, no, son, you’re on sentry duty out front. You see anything strange, you signal.”
“Boss, I’ve seen nothing but strange today,” said Bobby, sounding inconsolable.
“Good, then you’ll know it when it shows up. You do know how to signal, don’t you? You just put your lips together and blubber like a baby. Now, get out there, stay put, and don’t you even think of trying to bolt again.”
Trying not to breathe, Hasta listened to the footsteps moving around. If she and Ivan were discovered, she didn’t think she had enough juice left to flip Mr. Sunshine again.
The man spoke again, but quietly and indistinctly. Hasta cupped a hand around her ear. To her surprise, the voice jumped into sharp clarity. “Now, Master White,” Mr. Sunshine was muttering, “time to figure out where you and everyone else have gone to ground. Not to mention where my ever-loving comm window slipped through my spastic fingers.”
Hasta glanced up at Ivan in the dim light. She pointed to her cupped hand. He cupped his own hand to his ear. His eyes widened.
“Hold on a rotten minute!” the voice was saying, now more strongly. “We cut the power. What are these doing on? Master Kimball—Bobby!”
“Yeah, boss?” came Bobby’s more distant voice.
“You didn’t monkey around in here after my, er, forcible ejection from the premises, did you?”
Bobby sounded out of breath. “No, boss, no way.”
Mr. Sunshine sighed. “They’re learning far too fast for my tastes. Unlike certain young associates I could name. Ah, well. We’re here, they’re not, so let’s . . . just . . . find them.”
No sound came from the outer office for a minute or more. Hasta began to wonder if Sunshine had somehow teleported himself silently away.
“There you are, you clever little badger,” he said suddenly, and for a second Hasta thought she and Ivan were busted. “Bobby, the girl and her geek are nowhere in sight, but I do have a visual on Cory. Let’s meet up with him, as quietly as we can.”
She signaled Ivan to remain still, and only reached up to open the door after two full minutes of silence had passed. As she stole into the outer office, she stayed alert for any sound or sign of movement.
“What a freak that guy is,” she whispered to Ivan when he joined her.
“Next time you see him, flip him to Michigan,” said Ivan.
The video security monitors were still on. One of the internal feeds had a button labeled HOLD glowing red beneath it. While the other feeds continued to cycle, that one held steady on an overhead view of some anonymous stretch of hallway. In the half-light of the image, the Black kid from earlier stood with his arms folded, occasionally looking up at the camera. At his feet, prone, lay a long-haired figure in a big coat.
Hasta’s heart leaped into her throat. “Juan!” she gasped. “Where is that?”
Ivan peered at the image. “Nothing but lockers around. Can’t see any numbers on classroom doors. What’s that on his hands?”
Juan’s wrists were cuffed together behind his back. The shackles went around big puffy gloves that appeared silvery and quilted on the monitor.
“Looks like oven mitts,” Hasta said, feeling the backs of her eyeballs begin to sting. Was Juan dead or just unconscious? It was impossible to tell. “Are you convinced he’s on our side yet?”
Ivan clacked his teeth together several times, which Hasta had noticed he did when he didn’t want to admit he was wrong. “We have to figure out where he is,” he said, rifling through a stack of papers on the counter. “There must be a map of camera locations around here somewhere.”
The boy on the screen turned his head, and Mr. Sunshine entered the image. Hasta watched them talk. The boy took something out of his pocket and handed it over. The white-bearded man held the flat black object to his mouth and spoke. Hasta thought she heard a faint, muffled voice somewhere in the room with them.
“Ivan! Listen!” she whispered.
“What the—!” said Ivan. He jerked and clapped a hand to the breast pocket of his windbreaker.
On the tiny screen, Mr. Sunshine had poked his finger into the black rectangle. Ivan danced back from the counter, slapping at his chest as manic giggles burst out of him. “Ahhh, tickles!” he cried.
“Ivan!” Hasta shouted in alarm. On the monitor, Mr. Sunshine hooked two fingers from each hand into the black rectangle and pulled, prying the object open, making it larger. “Oh, God, Ivan, take off your jacket!”
Ivan crashed into the wall, knocking down a framed certificate. Alternately laughing and yelping, he scrabbled at the lapels of his jacket. The inside pocket bulged and thrashed like a trapped weasel was trying to escape.
Hasta darted over to Ivan and grabbed at the bulge with both hands. The jacket had gotten stuck around Ivan’s shoulders, trapping his arms as he twisted to and fro. The bulge swelled into a square shape, straining the lining of the jacket, and four fingertips curled out the top of Ivan’s pocket. Seams ripped and shredded as the black rectangle swelled suddenly to four feet square. Ivan screamed.
The black square danced and shivered in midair, blocking a good portion of Ivan and his ruined jacket from Hasta’s view. Disembodied fingers gripped its top and bottom edges.
“Grab him, you idiot!” came Mr. Sunshine’s voice, as if right there in the room with them.
“Let me go!” cried Ivan.
Hasta rushed in, arms stretched wide to grab the left and right edges of the square. Its thickness was negligible, and it seemed solid from her side, but on the far side her fingers felt as if they were gripping the inside edge of a picture frame. The square swelled again, straining her arms almost wider than they could go. Hasta tried squeezing the square, but she couldn’t force it to contract. Instead she wrenched it from side to side as Ivan’s feet kicked and tried to find purchase on the floor.
“Leave him alone!” Hasta shouted over at least three other shouting voices. She swung the square around like a drunken dance partner, hoping Ivan could wrench himself free.
But the weight and resistance of the portal suddenly vanished. Hasta stumbled backward to the floor, cracking her head against the base of the counter. Atop her, the black square contracted suddenly between her hands.
“Ivan, yell!” Hasta shouted.
Her hands smacked together as the square shrank to nothing and disappeared with a pop. √
To be continued…