Discover more from William Shunn’s Main Wish Null
Root: Part II, Chapter 9
While Hasta probes LaVell’s strange amnesia and tries to bring him up to speed, Lamm takes another unprecedented and perilous step toward transformation.
For more on this project, please see “This Year a Serial Takes Root.”
“Please,” said LaVell, hugging himself. “I just want to go home. My parents will be worried sick.”
In the dark classroom, Hasta stood at the window and scoped the front grounds. Here came the tall agent once again, a shambling shadow in the rain, relentless in his circuit of the school. A creature whose existence was woven into the very fabric of the world? He was obviously dangerous, but she had a hard time fathoming the rest of it. And where was the other one, his little buddy?
“Come on, Hasta.”
She turned her head. “Like I told you, you can call them,” she said, “but leaving the school is too dangerous. Can you see that man out there? That’s one of the ones who are after me.”
LaVell came to the window beside Hasta. “Why? What does he want?”
Hasta’s skin crawled, so she moved a couple of feet away from him. Whatever she suspected consciously about him, her body didn’t want to be anywhere near him. “To erase my brain, I guess. If you leave, he’ll probably take you hostage.”
LaVell put his face in his hands. “I don’t understand any of this,” he said. He looked up again, a timid, hollow-eyed specter in the darkness. The big bandage taped under his chin made him look like a boy pharaoh. “And I thought you said there were two.”
“There were.” Hasta shivered. “I don’t know what the other one’s up to.”
She folded her arms and leaned back against the teacher’s desk. This was a biology classroom on the south end of the school. Half-seen posters of half-flayed creatures adorned the walls, and she kept flinching at glimpses of them out the corners of her eyes.
“So, you,” she said. “Tell me again what you remember.”
LaVell flopped down at a desk in the third row back. “I told you, the last thing I remember is getting ready for bed.”
“At eight o’clock,” Hasta said, not hiding her skepticism.
“Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise.” At Hasta’s look, he said, “I’d just gotten home from a youth activity at church, okay? I had to take the bus all the way from Pulaski. I was tired. I said goodnight to my parents, went to my room—” He waved at himself. “—put on my pajamas, and that’s the last thing I remember.”
“Convenient. So you don’t remember anything else? Not how you got your chin split open, or anything?”
LaVell gingerly touched the gauze pad. “Nothing. I guess I must have fallen down or something before you found me. It’s so weird. I’ve never sleepwalked before.”
Hasta tried to sound casual. “You didn’t have any, you know, dreams or anything like that?”
“Not that I remember,” LaVell said, crinkling his face. “But then I never remember my dreams. I’m not sure I’ve ever even had a dream, to be honest.”
“You’ve got a pretty active nightlife, though,” Hasta muttered, turning back to the window that now looked out only on black, stinging rain.
She tapped her thumbnail against her front tooth. LaVell’s assertion about his dreams bothered her. When was the last time before tonight that she had had a dream? She wasn’t sure, and she couldn’t remember one offhand.
LaVell cleared his throat. “Um, you mentioned about calling my parents?”
Hasta turned away from the window. “Yeah, let’s go take care of that.” In fact, it wouldn’t be a bad idea for her to do that, too.
She led LaVell back to the front of the school by the sickly greenish light of the exit signs. She tried not to let him lag behind her. Whatever entity had possessed him appeared to be gone, but if it returned—or if LaVell were simply crazy—she didn’t want him sneaking up on her from behind.
While he dialed his parents from the office, Hasta kept watch out the front doors of the school. She rubbed her face. Her muscles felt leaden. Her nap in the equipment room had been anything but restful, and she was exhausted. She rested her forehead against the cool glass, and her eyelids drooped.
A brilliant flash of white startled her alert. Her eyes sprang open. Lightning outside. It painted the figure of the tall agent in stark light and shadow and left a ghostly afterimage burned on her retinas. A crack of thunder rattled the windows in their metal frames. Faintly Hasta could make out the agent’s glowing green eyes. They seemed to float against a blackness deeper than the depths of space.
She shivered. Where were the lights that lined the school’s front walk? Where were the streetlamps along Damen? Even with the heavy rain, they should all have been visible.
“Oh, great,” she muttered as the realization hit. “All the power’s out.”
Hasta massaged her forehead with the back of her fist. She saw movement behind the tall agent’s feet. Squinting, she could make out a roiling army of cats, dozens of them. The agent turned and walked south, resuming his endless patrol, but the cats remained.
LaVell sidled up next to her, peering out at the rain-lashed darkness. “Are those cats?” he said and shuddered dramatically.
Hasta thought of the rats that had appeared in the coach’s office along with him. She sighed impatiently. “What did your parents say, anyway? Did you get them on the phone?”
He didn’t look at her, but she heard something tremble in his voice, as if he were on the edge of tears. “They told me just to stay here,” he said. “They said they’ve had the police out looking for me all night, but since I’m safe at the school I should just not go anywhere.”
“Yeah, that’s a great idea,” said Hasta. “Until you start sleepwalking again.”
“I guess this storm’s getting really bad,” LaVell said fearfully. “Trees down and stuff around my house. My parents don’t want to drive in it, and the police said it’s supposed to get worse.”
Hasta groaned. If the storm kept getting worse then the city might close school, and that could dash her last-ditch hope of escaping under cover of the mobs of kids arriving in the morning.
“Your parents don’t care that all you have to wear is a pair of stupid pajamas?” she said. “And that you don’t even have any shoes on?”
LaVell’s lower lip quivered, and tears piled up on his lower lashes. He turned away and brushed at his eyes.
Feeling guilty and angry in equal measure, Hasta growled low in her throat and went into the office. She didn’t know what to say to LaVell to make him feel better, especially since all she wanted to do was yell at him.
Behind the counter, she snatched up the telephone receiver and punched an outside line. When she dialed her parents’ landline, all she got was a busy signal. Her father’s cell number went straight to voice mail. She racked her brain, but she couldn’t remember her mother’s cell number.
Why couldn’t she reach her parents? Where were they? Her eyes burned, and she felt a sudden unwanted sympathy for LaVell.
Hasta stood with her hands braced on the counter while she breathed deep and tried to think. She had to get out of the school, no way around it. And hard as she tried, she could think of only one way to do it.
She rejoined LaVell, who now stood with his forehead pressed against the glass of one of the front doors, the very picture of dejection.
“You may not like this,” she said, “but I need your help with something.”
He backed up from the door, pointing out the window. “Um, is it urgent?” he asked. “Because another one of those trench coat men just showed up, and now he’s coming up the steps.”
One moment Lamm was facing the Babich child. The next he found himself standing in a wide street with headlights bearing down on him through the rain.
The honk of that huge truck not twenty feet away jolted him into motion. He ran for the sidewalk, two lanes away. He heard tires squeal and water spray. He cut it close in front of another vehicle before skidding through the rushing flow in the gutter and falling to his knees on the sidewalk.
He looked around, panting like a dog. He was on a boulevard of rundown shops and restaurants, mostly closed and dark. Pushing himself to his feet, Lamm wondered at the urgent, coppery sensation flooding his veins. Was this fear? Fear of a human? He ran his tongue around the inside of his dry mouth. Extraordinary.
A passing taxi splashed him with a waist-high rooster tail of rainwater. Lamm looked around for a street sign but instead spotted the well-lit Western Avenue station on the Brown Line a block away. The Babich child had translated him well over half a mile west.
These children were growing more dangerous by the hour.
Lamm stepped off the curb and hailed the next taxi he saw. “Please convey me to the intersection of Damen and Foster Avenues,” he told the driver as he settled himself in back. He found himself annoyed by his cumbersome tongue. “I’ll exit at the bus stop on the southwest corner, near the high school.”
The driver took him there without a word, and didn’t complain when the daemon got out without paying. Lamm found Kray in the darkened parking lot behind the school, halfway through another circumnavigation of the building. The lights everywhere in the neighborhood, in fact, appeared to be out. He fell in step with his partner.
—Kray, we’re running out of time, he said. —The infection is undeniably spreading.
—Why? What did you find on your mission?
—I accosted Ivan Babich outside his domicile. Or rather, he accosted me, catching me startled and unprepared. Kray, he translated me.
Kray removed his hat and scratched the thin hair on top of his lumpy head, blowing out his breath. —Where is he now?
—I don’t know, Lamm said. —I came straight here.
They were rounding the corner of the gently shimmering border of the forbidden zone onto the front grounds of the school. Kray’s hands flexed. —Why are you not pursuing him now?
—It’s four o’clock already, Lamm said. —We could waste our time chasing down the fingers, but the hand is here, inside the school. We must apprehend the girl. When we do, everything else will fall into place.
Kray stopped. His glowing eyes narrowed. —What makes you think that?
Lamm shook his head. —I, I’m not sure, he said. —Intuition?
—Intuition, Kray said. A snap of his fingers indicated disgust. —Shiva help us.
Lamm resumed walking. —We can’t afford to squander more time. We must act.
Kray hurried after him. “What do you intend?” he asked aloud.
Lamm continued south along the sidewalk, then turned down the path to the school’s front door.
“Lamm,” said Kray. “Lamm, what on earth do you intend?”
Lamm stopped a meter away from the luminescent boundary. He held his palms out toward the glow, but he felt nothing—no greater warmth, no greater cold, no greater fear or certainty.
“Lamm!” Kray shouted, his desperate footfalls splashing down the walk. “In the name of all that’s holy!”
—I’m sorry, partner, Lamm signed, though the words would not be visible to Kray. —One of us must do this.
Then he stepped through the barrier.
He didn’t know what to expect. The lore on the topic was fragmentary, contradictory, and opaque. He didn’t expect to die, but the one clear consequence would be setting himself apart somehow from his fellow daemons.
He pushed ahead and was mildly startled to realize that he felt no different inside the barrier than out. He’d been certain that some kind of sensory change would manifest itself, but it didn’t. The rain still fell around him, the wind still howled in his ears, and his feet still padded forward without quite touching the ground. Beyond the fact that he could no longer hear Kray’s shouted warnings, the only difference was a colossal sense of aloneness.
Grimly Lamm started up the front stairs. The rain beat down in heavy sheets that seemed to grow heavier and more torrential with every step. Not only that, but he was actually starting to get wet.
A boy with a shock of pale, lank hair stared out through the window in one of the front doors. His face blurred, as if he were shaking his head with incredible speed. A second face—a girl’s face, Hasta Veeramachaneni’s—appeared next to his, both of them flickering in rapid motion. Before Lamm had taken his second step toward them, the faces vanished.
Two quick strides brought him to the doors. He stood to one side of the leftmost window and peered carefully inside. A strange, gray-green luminescence filled the main hallway of the school, but the children were nowhere in sight.
Best to act quickly. By Shiva, Lamm wouldn’t let anyone take him by surprise again, as the Babich child had. He spun up a shield of dull orange energy and held it out before him as he pulled the front door open. He was pleased that the lock yielded to his touch.
Lamm stepped out of the impossibly dense rain. The water on his hat and coat shot to the floor as if it couldn’t wait to get away from him. The door slammed shut hard behind him the moment he released it. The luminescence in the air, which seemed to rise from every surface, brightened as he moved forward. By his third step into the foyer, he had to squint.
He was just turning his head toward the glass-fronted office when two dark streaks converged on him from around the corner ahead. He swung his shield toward the attack, but his assailants danced around him faster than he could follow, capering like adrenalized monkeys.
The two blurred figures had retreated and advanced and circled and retreated and advanced and retreated again before he could even swing his shield around, let alone muster a counterattack. He was just bringing his free hand up in the grasping gesture that could claw the sentience right out of a healthy brain when one of the attackers popped into view again ten feet in front of him. He had only a nanosecond in which to recognize the Veeramachaneni child—
—before he flew backward through fierce rain and darkness. He landed in a tangle of branches and leaves.
It took Lamm more time to extricate himself from the bush than he had spent inside the school. By the time he managed it, his coat was torn, his hands were scraped, and he was shaking with rage and humiliation. The rain was changing to hail.
He was standing in someone’s backyard, though he could barely make out the black bulk of the house looming over him. Lamm kicked open the wooden gate into the alley. He could just have easily opened it with a touch, but the splintering of the wood satisfied him in a way that delicacy could not. When he spotted a street sign and realized he was nearly a mile east of the school, a snarl of pure fury tore from his throat.
Not a single cab was to be found in this forbidding weather. When Lamm limped around a corner ten minutes later and spotted Kray still on station outside the school, he was soaked to the bone, chafed, and stinging from the relentless hail.
—Lamm! exclaimed Kray in startlement as the smaller daemon stumbled up next to him. —You’re alive! What in creation happened in there?
—Very little, Lamm said. His hands were so cold and full of emotion, he could barely get any words out.
—And what happened to you? Lamm, you’re wet!
—It all happened so fast, I’m not sure what—
—So fast? said Kray, mouth open. —Partner, it’s been more than an hour! What did they do to you in there?
Lamm turned to stare with dread at the front doors of the school. He shook so hard he couldn’t speak, and, after a few moments, he began to sob. √
To be continued…