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Root: Part III, Chapter 1
Awakening from the dreamworld to find herself still trapped in the school, Hasta must enlist a hostile ally in her cause if she wants to escape.
Today, at the outset of Part III, we’re pleased to offer the following free chapter to all our readers. For more on this project, please see “This Year a Serial Takes Root.”
Part III: The Bunker
A hand shook her shoulder. “Wake up, Miss Veeramachaneni. Hasta.”
Her eyes sprang open and she flailed her arms. Her back slammed against her locker as she struggled to her feet. It took a moment for it to sink in that she was facing Principal Armisted in a heavy coat, not a blue-faced monster.
“Hasta, it’s okay,” the principal said. “You’re safe.”
Hasta froze, blinking stupidly, hands in fighting position. Her haze of terror and pain began to dissipate. In the grainy gray light, she saw Mr. Kostner pushing a trashcan on casters past them. A few other people were going about their early-morning business, students and teachers alike.
She touched her shoulder and her thigh, where arrows had pierced her in the dreamworld. It had all been so vivid and real—the obsidian edges of the arrowheads slicing muscle with her every motion, the texture of the ashwood shafts rubbing the edges of her wounds, the shaking of the ground as the monsters closed in with their whistling blades—that her waking world now seemed like the dream.
“Safe?” croaked Hasta. She felt like she hadn’t drunk water in days. “Is it over?”
“Over?” Principal Armisted shook her head with a rueful snort. “No, my child, it’s only getting started.”
Hasta waved down the hall. “But people are showing up for school. The blizzard must be over.”
Principal Armisted pulled her glossy black coat closer around her. “It’s tapering off, but we still have two feet of snow on the ground, and the power’s out. Anyone who’s here feels some compulsion to be here. Everyone else is sitting patiently at home or trying to get out of the city.”
“Out of the city? To where?”
“That’s the question, isn’t it? And people who don’t have a good answer are being swept up off the streets and into Army recruitment trucks.” Her voice dropped to a murmur. “Apparently there’s a sudden troop-replacement emergency in Asia.”
Hasta had thought she couldn’t feel any worse than she already did. Now she felt the weight of an escalating war on her shoulders too. She slammed the meat of her fist against a locker. “God! One more stupid thing I’m supposed to fix?”
“If you can,” said Principal Armisted. “If anyone can. Hasta, it’s time for you to assemble your chain, or as many pieces of it as you can.”
“My chain? What’s that, some kind of weapon?”
“Your greatest weapon, in a sense. It’s your cadre, your cohort. Your comrades.”
Finally some real guidance. “Okay, good, my friends. Where do I find them? How do I get out of here?”
“You keep jumping to conclusions,” said the principal. “But you do need help bypassing the daemon outside.” She pointed north along the corridor. “The person who best can help you is around that corner. If you hurry you can catch her.”
Hasta’s head was swimming. “But—”
Principal Armisted made a shooing motion. “Hurry, child. There’s little time to waste.”
Hasta took a hesitant step away from the principal, looking back with suspicion.
“Go!” said Armisted.
Hasta started walking, then broke into a trot. Halfway to the end of the hall she passed Mr. Kostner, who nodded encouragingly. She quickened her pace.
As she rounded the corner, she collided with a tall Black girl. “Oof!” said Hasta as they bounced off each other and fell to the floor. Books went flying and an instrument case clattered across the tiles.
It was Kylie, and she stared fuming at Hasta.
“Oh, my God,” Hasta said, clambering to one knee and extending a hand. “I’m so sorry!”
Ignoring Hasta’s hand, Kylie pushed herself to her knees. “You,” she said as she dusted herself off. “Why am I not surprised?”
“Kylie, I’m such an idiot,” said Hasta, her cheeks burning. As she stumbled to her feet and reached for the instrument case, she kicked it and sent it spinning across the hall.
“You got that right,” said Kylie, rolling her eyes. She wore a white winter jacket with the hood up. Snow still clung to the shoulders. “Just leave it.”
Hasta backed off, collecting the books while Kylie went after the case. An unnerving thought struck her. Principal Armisted hadn’t meant she needed Kylie’s help to get out of the school, had she?
But there was no one else around. Oh, God.
“Trumpet, right?” Hasta asked, striving for sweetness.
Kylie flipping up the catches on the case. She checked the silver trumpet carefully in its velvet nest before looking up with narrowed eyes. “Why do you care?”
“I don’t know, just making conversation.” Ivan had complained several times that Kylie lips were too sore from practicing for her to want to make out. Not something Hasta had wanted to hear, even from her best friend. “Is that why you’re here so early, for practice?”
Kylie shook her head in a way that made Hasta feel irredeemably stupid. “I can’t practice at home,” she said. “My father can’t stand the noise.”
“You have to practice even on a day like this?”
“What else am I going to do?” Kylie closed the case and stood, regarding Hasta coolly. “You’d better watch where you’re going from now on. Girl, you are one hot mess.”
Hasta felt her cheeks blaze—she knew how bruised and battered she must look—but she nevertheless scurried after Kylie as she strode off in the direction of the office.
She was formulating a plan.
Kylie stopped at a locker not far down the hallway. Someone had scratched the words HYLIE CON TAGIS into the pale yellow paint. Before Kylie could turn the dial on the lock, Hasta caught up and put her hand over it.
“Just try the latch,” she said.
Kylie released a long breath from between clenched teeth. “Hasta, I gave him up, okay? He’s yours now. You don’t have to punk me.”
“I don’t—what?” Hasta shook her head in confusion. “What are you talking about?”
“Have it your way.” Kylie folded her arms and looked away. “So what’s supposed to happen when I open my locker?”
Hasta made a frustrated noise, the words backing up in her mouth. “Nothing! Ivan and I are just friends.”
“Just try the latch, okay? I want you to see that it’s locked.”
“Fine.” Kylie rattled the latch. The locker didn’t open. “Now why?”
“For when I do this.” Hasta pinched the latch and lifted. With a harsh scraping sound, the locker popped open.
“Great,” said Kylie. “Now you’ve broken my locker.”
Hasta backed a few feet away, palms raised. “It’s not broken,” she said. “You just needed to catch the meme.”
“What are you talking about?” Kylie demanded, marching toward Hasta with her hands clenched at her sides. “You and I are going to have a serious problem, girl, if you don’t leave me alone.”
Hasta felt awful about trying to drag Kylie into this hideous world, but she didn’t think she had any choice. It was the same thing she’d planned to do to LaVell Rigby before the little scamp vanished. “I’m sorry about this, Kylie, I really am. I just need one small favor.”
Hasta glanced over her shoulder. Her back was to the north, and there was no one behind her. “Flip me off.”
“You know, flip me the bird. Give me the finger.”
Kylie, nostrils flared, kept advancing as Hasta backed up. “What are you going to do?” she said. “Take a picture of me or something? I’m a good person, Hasta. I might slap the brown off you, but I don’t use curse words, and I won’t make any rude gestures.”
“Please,” said Hasta. “I know it doesn’t make any sense, but what if Ivan was in danger, and the only thing you could do to save him was to flip me the bird? Would you do it?”
Kylie stopped, hands on her hips. “How on earth would that save his life?”
“Hypothetical situation,” Hasta said. “If it was the only thing you could possibly do to save him from death, would you compromise your standards that far? To save his life?”
“I don’t know. Probably, I guess,” Kylie said, shaking her head. “But I still don’t—”
“Well, it’s not hypothetical, okay?” Hasta snarled. “Now swing your arm like you want to punch me in the stomach, you selfish priss, and flip me off!”
Kylie rocked her weight from side to side, her upper lip curling. “Oh, you are ticking me off,” she said, raising her clenched fist. “I’ll give you the bird.” She stared hard at her fingers. Her fist trembled, but her fingers didn’t move.
Hasta tapped her foot impatiently. “Come on, I don’t have all day.”
The tip of Kylie’s tongue poked out the corner of her mouth. “Rats!” she said. “It’s not like I’ve practiced, okay?”
“Every kindergartner can do it.”
At last Kylie grabbed her middle finger with her other hand and pried it upright. “There!” she cried, triumphant. “I did it!” She drew her fist back and punched. “How do you like—”
Some giant force grabbed Hasta by the inside of her left hip and yanked her inside-out through her right ear. Blackness engulfed her, a timeless, twisty tunnel that stretched to eternity. Then she was right-side out again, flying backward through gray air and snow. Something caught her legs below the knees and she slammed to the ground. Snow puffed up around her head and shoulders.
Hasta rolled sideways to clear her legs from the tombstone that had tripped her. She pushed herself to her feet and looked around.
Rosehill Cemetery. She’d made it. She was out!
But the flush of victory faded as a cold wind scoured her. It was well below freezing out, and she didn’t even have on a sweatshirt. √
To be continued…
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