Discover more from William Shunn’s Main Wish Null
Root: Part II, Chapter 7
Finding himself on the wrong side of the tracks, Ivan tries to turn an enemy to an ally, and he makes another unsettling discovery about the nature of the world.
For more on this project, please see “This Year a Serial Takes Root.”
One second Ivan was backing up against Bobby Kimball, nodding desperate encouragement to Hasta. The next, he was falling backward in darkness and rain.
His feet backpedaled for purchase, but his heels skidded in muck. He was on a downward slope. He twisted as he fell back, landing mostly on his right shoulder blade, and slid a foot or more through weeds and mud.
When he came to a stop, he blinked hard against the pelting rain and shook his head. He tried to sit up, but that was hard with his hands gloved and bound behind his back. He managed it after a lot of flailing and a little more slipping. Water coursed down his back. His jeans were soaked.
A metallic rattle drew his attention. By the feeble light of a streetlamp, Ivan saw the chain-link fence a few yards down the slope, and Bobby Kimball using it to pull himself to his feet. On the far side of it, a wet street lined with parked cars vanished into hazy darkness in either direction.
Bobby looked back at Ivan. He yelled angrily, but the hiss and spatter of the rain drowned out his words. He let go of the fence and started scrambling up the slope.
Ivan rolled onto his stomach and tried to slither up the hill. His knees only churned the mud as rainwater sluiced past him. Lungs heaving, he wrenched his chest off the ground for a fresh attempt, but crunching weeds and sloshing footsteps sounded behind him. A hand seized the back of his windbreaker and pushed him back down. Ivan turned his head to the side, getting an earful of muck instead of a mouthful.
With a knee in Ivan’s back, Bobby pressed his face down close. He was screaming at the top of his lungs. Ivan could feel the wind of the words puffing against his cheek, but all he could hear was the rain, the wind, and the spray of a car slicing through standing water in the street below.
“Bobby, dude, I can’t hear you!” Ivan tried to yell, but he couldn’t hear himself either. Just as it had been ever since Mr. Sunshine silenced him, he felt like he was shouting, felt the shredding of his vocal cords as he tried to push the volume higher, but no sound emerged. He was still on mute.
Ivan closed his eyes, pressed his forehead into the mud, and waited for Bobby to reach the same conclusion. After what seemed like forever, the contorted face settled down and receded from his. Bobby gave Ivan a final desultory shove in the middle of the back and rolled off him.
Flexing his strained shoulders, Ivan turned over as best he could and sat up, facing the houses across the street. Bobby was sitting next to him, arms on his knees, head down. Ivan looked back over his shoulder up the slope. They were on a hill or berm that rose several more yards to a knife-flat ridge. There must be train tracks up there, probably the Metra tracks. That would put them about a quarter-mile east of the school.
The top of the fence below was eye-level with Ivan. Three strands of barbed wire, tilted toward the street.
As Ivan heaved a deep sigh, he heard Bobby mutter something.
A jolt of excitement shot through him. “What was that?” he said, turning toward Bobby. His own voice sounded distant, like an echo of a breath, but it was audible.
Bobby looked at him, his expression strangely desolate in the faint light. His voice was still far too quiet, and Ivan had to strain to hear, but his words were understandable. “I said, what’s going on here, beanpole?”
In his excitement, Ivan started bouncing his right knee up and down. He strained to tap the swaddled fingertips of his bound hands against each other in the same rhythm. Somehow even the cruel nickname sounded thrilling to him.
“I can hear you!” he said, barely able to contain himself. “It’s wearing off, Bobby. Whatever Mr. Sunshine did to us is just temporary.”
Bobby leaned his forehead against his clasped hands and sighed. “Did the whole world go crazy today?” he said, his voice stronger in volume but shaking. “What’s happening?”
Ever since Mr. Sunshine had yanked him through the portal, Ivan had been suffering taunts, threats, shoves, and quiet kidney punches at Bobby’s hands—sort of like being a freshman again. But now he felt almost sorry for the dumb bully.
“You tell me,” Ivan said. Behind his back, he was trying to work the mitts off his hands, but with the cuffs clamping them to his wrists it was no good. “You’re the one who works for the guy.”
“The guy’s crazy,” said Bobby. “I’ve always known that, but today—” He shook his head. “I don’t know, it’s just usually a lot more straightforward than this.”
Their voices were nearly back to normal. “What’s the dude’s deal, anyway?” Ivan asked. “What turns a math teacher into a drug lord?”
“Chaos. That’s all he cares about. He gets off on chaos.” Bobby looked around in a sudden panic. “Where are we, beanpole? I can’t take any more of this, not knowing where I am from one minute to the next.”
“Metra tracks, I think,” Ivan said.
Bobby pushed himself to his feet. His clothes were an unholy mess—wet, muddy, and torn. “I gotta get back. He’s gonna kill me.”
“Not if he can’t find you,” Ivan said. “Bobby, the guy’s not your friend. He treats you like crap. He flipped you all over the school like a cat with a toy. That wasn’t a lot of fun for you, I could tell.”
Bobby bent down and shouted in Ivan’s face. “Your cow-kissing friend did too! She’s the one who started all this!” He took a step downslope, stopped, wiped the water from his face. He stood with his arms folded tightly, head down.
Ivan tried to stay calm, but it was hard. He ached everywhere, especially his back and shoulders, and his cramped arm muscles felt like they were going to start spazzing out any second.
“Bobby,” he said, “were you listening to your boss? His game is bigger than just drift. He wants to destroy the world. Don’t you get that? We can stop him. You can help.”
Bobby paced in a tight pattern, chewing his thumbnail. His feet kept slipping in the mud. “The world? That’s crazy.”
“No crazier than anything else tonight,” Ivan said. “Help me, Bobby. Help me get these gloves off at least, so I can get back in the fight.”
“No way. You’ll probably do it to me too.” Bobby shook his head and retreated farther down the slope. “You’re no friend of mine, beanpole.”
“Bobby, I’m your only friend right now!” Ivan said. He took a deep breath and tried to calm down, but his tingly arms felt as if someone was trying to wrench them higher and higher behind his back. It was his nerves playing tricks, he knew, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t convincing to the panic centers of his brain. “Listen, if you just help me get these gloves off, I’ll show you how to do it too.”
“You know, flip people. Teleport them. Heck, you could do it to me for practice.”
Bobby duckwalked up the slope and stuck his middle finger right in Ivan’s face. Ivan flinched. After all that had happened, Bobby was surely infected by the meme. Putting the idea in his head that he could flip people was maybe not the best decision he’d ever made.
“Forget it,” Bobby said. “I’m done. Back to the Bunker, grab my ride where they towed it, and hit the road. I don’t need any of this. Ten minutes I’ll be outta this town for good.”
“You’ve got a spare key then, I guess.”
Bobby sighed and turned a baleful look uphill. “What do you know about it?”
Ivan shrugged, though it hurt. “I heard your keys got dropped in a mailbox somewhere. That sucks, dude. I’m glad to hear you’ve got a spare.”
Bobby spat a curse under his breath. “Beanpole, you’re dead. Tell me you didn’t.”
“I didn’t,” Ivan said. “But I bet I can get the car started for you. Just help me off with these gloves.”
For a long moment Bobby locked eyes with Ivan. Then he swept his gaze back and forth along the fence. “There’s other cars,” he muttered. He hit the chain-link with both fists, raising a racket. “Which freakin’ way is out of here?”
“Figure it out yourself, genius.”
Bobby turned and marched straight past Ivan and up the slope. He only slipped a couple of times. Ivan craned his neck to watch him go. At the summit, Bobby looked both ways, then set out north, walking in the railbed.
“Watch out for trains!” Ivan shouted.
“No trains after one a.m., loser,” Bobby called back. He dwindled in the rain and soon was lost to view.
Ivan flopped back in the mud. He closed his eyes. He tried to stay calm. He tried to forget Bobby, forget the rain pattering down on him, the cold mud weighing down his clothes, the growing numbness of his feet, his overstrained back and shoulders, the handcuffs digging into the small of his back.
He tried to forget all those things because they were illusions. They meant nothing. None of them was real.
That was his theory, anyway, and had been since the moment he crooked his finger at that stadium seat in the bleachers. He didn’t know how else to explain the text window that had appeared in midair, tilted at the proper angle for comfortable viewing, enumerating the various physical properties of the chair—mass, dimensions, composition, time and place of manufacture, and more.
He’d had only a few seconds to gape at the window before the creepy detectives arrived on the scene, but he thought he’d also glimpsed a list of the ten most recent people to sit there.
That wasn’t physics. That was information technology, and he could only think of one reasonable explanation for it.
Scratch that. The explanation was not reasonable in any way, shape or form. In fact, it was downright crazy. But no alternate explanation could hold a candle to it in terms of logical consistency. It not only explained the window but also provided a framework for explaining everything else—their powers, the detectives, the possible end of the world . . .
Their world was not real. It was instead a vast computer simulation.
Ivan tried not to think too hard about what that made him, or what that made all his friends and family. If he thought too much about that, he wasn’t sure he’d be able to function at all.
Function. He snorted. Like a computer subroutine.
No, it was enough just to think of the world as unreal, a projection, an illusion. If the world wasn’t real, then it couldn’t hurt him. And if these oven mitts and handcuffs weren’t real, then they couldn’t hold him. Right?
Eyes still closed, Ivan sat up and tried to pin one of the mitts between his butt and the ground. He wanted some leverage to yank it off his hand, but the hillside was too slick. The mitt kept pulling out from under him as he drew his arms back, and he kept sliding bit by bit down the hill.
Ivan flexed his aching shoulders. Maybe the key was just to keep telling himself the pain was not real . . .
Ivan squirmed the rest of the way to the bottom of the slope and fetched up against the fence. Pushing against the ground with his feet, he arched his back and tried to force his cuffed hands down past his butt. He almost made it, but he couldn’t quite get his wrists to slide past the points of his bony hips. He tried again. His shoulders felt like they were cracking from the strain, but he couldn’t get his arms to slide those last couple of inches.
He flopped back in the mud, breathing hard, the rain wiping tears of frustration from his face. He tried to relax, but in his bound and helpless state he kept sensing echoes of his mother’s closet, of the smells of cedar and fabric softener, of those many dark hours where as a child—
“No,” he said, shaking his head. “No.” He wouldn’t think about that. It wouldn’t help.
He ran his right thumb back and forth across the short chain that connected the two handcuffs. The mitt was thick, but he could still feel the curve of each link well enough to count them. Eleven. He counted again to double-check, then again, and again. Eleven times he counted the eleven links, and by the time he was done he had calmed down, his breathing and heart rate almost back to normal.
He took a deep breath. He shut out the world. He pretended he was floating in space, pretended all his senses were dead and blind.
In one violent motion, Ivan arched his back, thrust his arms as far toward his feet as he could, and pushed his butt down through the space between them.
His shoulders screamed, and so did he, but he’d done it. He was lying on his back with his bent legs pressed to his chest and his hands yoked together behind his knees. He rolled his shoulders, but neither one felt dislocated. He had never before felt grateful for his freakishly long arms, but now he was.
Ivan didn’t think he was nearly flexible enough to get his hands around his feet, but fortunately he didn’t need to be. He rocked himself into a sitting position with his knees tented in front of him. He bent his face between his knees and bit down on the end of the mitt on his right hand. The mitts were long, extending past his wrists, and the cuffs were cinched tight around them. When he pulled, the mitt slid a millimeter or two through the cuff.
Though the pressure made his teeth ache, he took a firmer bite and pulled again. The mitt scraped his skin as it slid through the constricting ring of metal, but once he got it going it moved steadily. It only stopped when the mitt’s thick hem fetched up against the cuff.
His teeth hurt—even in a computer simulation, apparently, bicuspids and molars were meant for grinding, not for gripping and tugging—but that didn’t stop him. He was almost free now. He could literally taste it. He moved his face farther down the mitt to clench it just this side of the cuff. Now he was able to pull a bit of the hem through, then a bit more, then more, until one last tug freed his hand altogether.
Eager now, Ivan let the mitt fall into the mud. He awkwardly crossed his hands so he could get his right fingers around the cuff on his left wrist. He wasn’t sure this part would work, given his track record with locks, but all he could do was concentrate and hope for the best. He squeezed the hinged cuff. It ratcheted one notch tighter—then sprang open and fell away from his wrist.
“Yes!” Ivan crowed. He ripped the mitt from his left hand, then freed his right wrist from its cuff. He stretched his muscles luxuriantly. Spreading his arms felt like spreading a pair of wings.
When he stood up, though, the cold, sopping clothing plastered against his skin made him shiver. He looked north along the embankment, wondering if he could catch up with Bobby and shadow him to this bunker he’d mentioned.
Instead, Ivan scrambled up the slope to the tracks and followed them south. He felt terribly exposed up there, almost at the level of the rooftops of the two-story houses to either side. But he also felt as if he’d found a secret passage through the heart of the city—a straight, true, gleaming vein that carried him like a feather above the streets, untouched by the mundane reality below.
Or maybe that had nothing to do with the height of the tracks, and everything to do with his theory.
Less than two blocks south, a cocoon of light enveloped the short trestle bridge that spanned Lawrence Avenue below. The cocoon was merely a byproduct of the rain and bright streetlamps, but it looked magical nonetheless.
The chain-link fence turned and ran up the slope here, almost all the way to the tracks. Ivan passed through the gap and, clinging precariously to the outside of the fence, managed to pick his way down the top of a stepped retaining wall until he was close enough to the sidewalk to jump down.
With concrete under his feet again, he leaned back against the retaining wall to catch his breath. A short, stout pedestrian stopped twenty feet away in the shadow of the underpass, watching him warily. Ivan was tempted to flip him in case it was one of the detectives, but he refrained. Who wouldn’t freeze seeing someone drop to the sidewalk from the railroad embankment? Anyway, Ivan had a different idea. He crooked his finger at the man. He had tried this with several objects since the bleachers, but never with a person. A window appeared before him in midair, but before he could grok its contents the man took a few steps toward him. When he emerged from the shadows, just out of reach of the rain, Ivan could see that he was Asian—and could see the confused expression on his face.
“No, no,” said Ivan, putting a hand up like a traffic cop signaling a halt. “I wasn’t telling you I wanted you to—”
But the man froze in place—literally froze, half in and half out of the rain, with one foot raised.
Ivan looked at the man in shock, then looked at his hand. He tried several gestures to unfreeze the poor man, but nothing worked. The window was still up, and the first three lines jumped out at him:
NAME: VUONG DUC SON CLASS: HUMAN SUBCLASS: DRONE
“Drone?” Ivan said, feeling sick to his stomach. “What the crap does that mean?”
He gazed at Mr. Vuong over the top of the window. The man’s face had frozen in an unfortunate pop-eyed grimace—one eye wide open, the other half-closed. He looked like he was having a stroke.
A taxi passed, reminding Ivan that he needed to keep moving. He watched the frozen man for a few seconds more, but had no idea what to do for him. Though it put a big knot in his gut, he turned away and headed for home. He hoped the freeze spell, like Mr. Sunshine’s silence spell, would fade in a few minutes.
He’s not real, anyway, he told himself. The guy’s a drone.
He tried to believe it.
Ivan lived a few blocks south and east. His building was a once-grand pile of yellow brick four stories high. Behind the wrought-iron gate was a courtyard with a broken, leaf-choked fountain in the middle. At the top of the front steps sat an old fire bucket filled with wet sand and soggy cigarette butts.
Inside, Ivan mounted a narrow wooden staircase to the second floor, heedless of the rainwater he dripped on the threadbare Persian-style carpet runner. He should have shaken off on the mat downstairs, but if the carpet and floors weren’t real then what did it matter? Right?
He listened at his apartment door before entering. Silence, though that didn’t mean much. His mother might have a boyfriend inside, or someone more sinister could be waiting for him. He tried crooking his finger at the apartment to see if he might get a list of the occupants, but all he ended up with were the specs for the door.
Oh, well. He unlocked the door and slipped inside. Everything was dark. He picked his way through the apartment and turned on the light in his mother’s bedroom. Empty, bed still made. Her shift would have ended at midnight, so she must be out somewhere getting trashed.
Good. Let her.
He changed into dry clothes, packed a spare laptop into his old vinyl Teen Titans backpack, and looked longingly at his bed. He was exhausted, but he’d pulled plenty of all-nighters writing code in his day. He figured he could keep going for a while longer. He did fire up one of his computers and dash off a quick email to Hasta. He didn’t know whether or not it would reach her, but he told her he was okay, and to hang in there because he’d find a way to get her out of that school.
The front closet held very bad memories, so he grabbed an umbrella, rubber boots, and a warmer coat from inside it by touch. Then he locked up and headed downstairs. In one of the first-floor apartments, two dogs were barking like crazy and scratching at their front door. By the time the significance of their commotion sank in, though, he was already emerging onto the porch and opening his umbrella.
A short, shadowy man in a trench coat stood just inside the courtyard gate, twenty yards away, head down.
Ivan stopped, heart thudding. As the man raised his head, the green glow of his eyes emerged from beneath the brim of his hat.
“Mr. Babich,” said the detective in that mush-mouthed voice. “How nice to see you again. I’d like to have a word with you if I might.”
Almost without thought, Ivan whipped his arm forward. His extended middle finger felt like it punched through a sheet of tin foil.
The detective vanished.
Ivan gaped at his hand, then at the empty spot inside the gate.
“Holy crap,” he said. “I didn’t think that was going to work.” √
To be continued…