Discover more from William Shunn’s Main Wish Null
Root: Part III, Chapter 12
As Hasta and her crew run up against obstacle after obstacle in their attempt to escape from Chicago, an unexpected group of allies joins the fight.
For more on this project, please see “This Year a Serial Takes Root.”
Hasta would have known that annoying voice anywhere. As Frida and Kylie shrieked, she turned in her seat and waved a finger in LaVell’s simpering face. “What are you doing here? You get out of here now!”
LaVell grabbed her finger and shook it like a baby toy, pooching out his lower lip. “Oh, the widdle’s ghost’s so koot when hew is angwy.”
“I kicked you in the nuts once.” Hasta wrenched her finger free. “I’m not afraid to do it again.”
“Hasta!” her father said.
“No,” LaVell said, shaking his head, “I’m afraid I don’t recall enjoying that particular pleasure.”
Juan was craning around beside her too. “I’ll give you the pleasure, twerp.”
“I bet you will, stud,” said LaVell with a wink.
Juan tensed. “I liked you better when you were trying to talk to me about the Book of Mormon,” he said.
LaVell made a great show of studying his seatmates. Kylie was pressed against her door, trying not to be touched by him, while Frida was practically in Ivan’s lap. LaVell looked at Hasta again with an expression both mean and incredulous.
“Wait—you? You’re the one who droned Zach’s ass and put such a scare in him? I mean, he always was a pussy, but wow.”
“I told you,” said Hasta. “You can have some too if you keep it up.”
Emergency sirens began to sound. People were starting up their cars again. LaVell made a little shooing motion over Hasta’s father’s shoulder. “Come on, Sanjeev, drive. I mean, we are going somewhere, right? End of the world is what I’m here for. I’ve never seen one from the inside before.”
“I think you should exit this vehicle,” her father said stiffly.
“No, let him stay,” said Hasta. Everyone started to protest, but she silenced them with a glare. “I have a feeling he’ll just keep pestering us whether we kick him out or not.”
What she didn’t say was that LaVell—or rather, his occupier—might have information they could use.
“Very well,” her father said. “Getting moving is a good idea in any event.”
He put the truck in gear and they lurched into motion. He pulled around the vehicles ahead and continued on the left side of the road, where there was no oncoming traffic.
“Well, this is a real adventure, don’t you think?” said LaVell. “Oh, right, sorry. You have no idea what you’re in for, do you?”
Hasta settled back down in her seat, holding her tongue, but Ivan spoke up. “Yeah, yeah, we get it, jerkwad,” he said. “You may not be the same one who attacked Hasta, but you are from the outside, and that makes you so much smarter than we are. So okay, Mr. Smart Guy—impress me. Tell me what kind of hardware we’re running on. Tell me about the operating system.” He gestured at the city. “How many yottaflops of computing power does it take to maintain an environment like this, and all of us in it?”
LaVell made a dismissive sound. “You’re joking, right? It makes no sense to even think in terms of ops per second. There are so many outdated assumptions in the questions you’re asking, I wouldn’t even know where to—” He stopped suddenly, then resumed in a conspiratorial tone. “Oh, you think you’re a clever little ghost, don’t you? Social-engineering me? Well, it’s not going to work. I’m not here to answer questions. I’m just here to observe.”
“Oh, right,” said Hasta angrily, turning around to kneel on the seat again. “And I guess your buddy Zach was just observing when he assaulted me.”
“Well, first,” LaVell said, “you’re a ghost, so who cares what you say. And second, this time I’m only here to observe, but we’ve been messing around with this world for a long time. Now I get to enjoy the fruits of our labor.”
Hasta dove partway over the seat and grabbed the jerk’s scrawny neck. “Is some game to you? This is our world!”
Kylie shrank against her door, and Hasta’s father slammed on the brakes. Everyone was trying to pull her off the guy, but he just stared back calmly as she choked him, smiling like a holy fool while his face went purple.
Her father finally pulled her away. “Hasta,” he said quietly, “this is not how you will triumph, nor fulfill Vishnu’s will.”
LaVell laughed as best he could as he coughed and sucked in air. He was lying half in Kylie’s lap. “That was chrome,” he croaked, grinning. “Total return on investment. And now I do believe you droned Zach’s ass.”
“I know you have your reasons, Hasta,” her father said, “but I would feel more comfortable with this boy out of our vehicle.”
As LaVell struggled to right himself, one of his feet kicked up near Ivan’s face.
“Dude!” Ivan said, grabbing LaVell’s ankle. “What’s wrong with your foot?”
The bare foot protruded swollen and purplish from the cuff of LaVell’s pajama bottoms, which were themselves wet to the knee. The skin was cracked and blistered in places, the wounds angry red edged with black.
“Oh, my God,” Frida said, making a face and turning away.
“Have you been walking around in this weather barefoot?” Ivan asked.
LaVell wrenched his ankle out of Ivan’s grasp and managed to sit up. “So?”
Hasta covered her mouth, nauseated. “So, that’s not your body! It belongs to LaVell Rigby, and you’re destroying it! That’s despicable!”
“It’s not like he’s going to have a use for it after a few more hours.”
Hasta’s neck prickled. In fact, every hair on her body felt like it was standing on end. “Raj, drive,” she said. “We’re practically out of time.”
The truck jolted into motion.
“How many more hours?” Hasta asked.
The boy shrugged. “Two? Three? Ten? It’s hard to say.”
Hasta clenched her fists. She wanted to punch him, but it was LaVell’s body that would suffer if she did. “A thousand miles by truck in only two or three hours?” Hasta said.
“If traffic stays like this, we might not even get out of Chicago in two hours,” said her father.
Hasta’s bones felt as heavy as lead. She let her head fall against the back of the seat. “We have to find a faster way.”
“Um, we have a problem,” said her father, slowing down.
“Oh, goodie,” said LaVell.
The morning had grown somewhat foggy, but about a quarter of a mile ahead Hasta could see an Army checkpoint blocking all four lanes of traffic.
“Those are the on-ramps to the Edens Expressway,” her father said. “The Kennedy’s another half-mile after that.”
Traffic was stopped dead in the westbound lanes, though a few other vehicles were, like them, driving the west in the eastbound lanes. The soldiers appeared to be turning cars back. The vehicles ahead of them had begun to brake.
“This is about to be gridlock,” said Juan. “Turn left and maybe we can get around it.”
“Good idea,” said Hasta’s father.
He made the left into a quiet residential neighborhood, and Hasta leaned against Juan for comfort. She was really proud of Juan’s contributions, and especially of the bravery he’d shown back at the Bunker. Juan slipped his arm around her, and for a moment Hasta felt like everything might be okay.
After a couple of blocks they turned right again and found themselves on an overpass crossing the Edens. The eight lanes of asphalt weren’t visible below. Instead, a layer of smooth, untainted snow filled the road bed from bank to bank, stretching below them like a frozen white river.
“No one’s plowed the interstates,” said Ivan. “My God, no one’s using them.”
“What does that mean?” Frida asked.
“It means we probably won’t be driving west,” Hasta’s father said.
On the far side of the Edens, they turned north again and zigzagged through deserted streets until at last they were back on Lawrence. But as they approached the Kennedy on-ramps, they saw that these too were guarded by trucks and soldiers. Beyond the roadblocks lay only fog.
Four soldiers in cold-weather gear hopped into a Jeep and sped out to meet them. “Uh-oh,” said Hasta.
Her father stopped the truck.
“They’re coming from behind us too!” Ivan said, looking out the back window. “A whole truck full.”
“Oh, great,” Hasta said. She knew she could count on Ivan and Juan, but she should have spent this time briefing everyone else on hand gestures, getting them ready to fight if necessary. “Just be cool, everyone. Raj, if you see an opportunity, punch it. We have to get out of here.”
“But where to?” said Frida. “The expressway’s packed with snow.”
Hasta was vibrating with stress. “I don’t know.”
The Jeep halted about ten yards in front of them, its headlights bright coins in the grayness. Behind them, the truck pulled to a stop. Half a dozen soldiers with rifles jumped down and formed a loose semicircle to their rear. A white officer in a winter-camouflaged parka marched up from the Jeep with an escort of two rifle-bearing soldiers. He wore captain’s bars on the collar of his jacket.
“Wow, you could cut the tension with a knife,” LaVell said.
“Shut up,” said Hasta.
The officer motioned from a distance for the window to be rolled down. Frigid air swirled inside as Hasta’s father did so. “Yes, sir?” he asked.
The officer remained ten feet from the open window. “Sir, these roads are closed. Did you not hear that on the radio?”
Her father’s hands were shaking on the wheel, his knuckles white. “No, sir, I didn’t. I’m sorry. We’ll just go back the way we came.” He started to crank the wheel to the left.
The soldiers all around raised their rifles. Surreptitiously, Hasta made the halt gesture at the ones in front, but it didn’t appear to affect to them.
“Turn off the vehicle, please, sir!” said the officer. “Step out of the vehicle with your hands in plain sight.”
Hasta’s heart stopped. These were her country’s soldiers, yes, but her father was brown, and she had no illusions about what he might look like to them. “No, Raj, don’t,” she said. Again she wished she’d been brave enough to have read his stats window.
Her father licked his lips and cast a nervous glance around the cab. “It’s all right,” he said. “I’ll calm them down.”
“Sir!” shouted the officer. “Now!”
“Ivan, Juan,” Hasta said quietly, “we have to do something.”
“But what?” Ivan said.
“You could try peeing your pants,” said LaVell.
“I’m coming!” said Hasta’s father, reaching to turn the ignition off.
Just then a chorus of snarls and barks arose. The officer swiveled toward the sound, as did his escorts. A huge pack of dogs, big dogs mostly, galloped onto the road from the south. There were dozens of them, maybe a hundred. Teeth bared, they split into two columns and charged the two groups of soldiers. The soldiers couldn’t seem to decide whether to point their rifles at the dogs or at the truck.
“It’s our chance!” Hasta hissed. “Drive, drive, drive!”
Her father punched the gas. The truck fishtailed on the slick road but gathered speed.
“Yee-haw!” LaVell crowed.
Hasta looked back as they sped toward the roadblock. The dogs were jumping at the soldiers, who only belatedly started shooting. Most of the shots went wild as the soldiers fell under the weight of three or four dogs apiece.
At the roadblock ahead, more soldiers were emerging from their trucks. Hasta’s father swerved around one parked sideways and headed down the ramp toward the westbound expressway. The ramp hadn’t been plowed, though, and within a few seconds the orange truck was ramming through snow up to its axles. They slid for several heart-stopping seconds, slewed to the side, and stopped. Her father spun the wheel and stepped on the gas, but they were stuck. He killed the engine.
The driver’s side of the truck faced upslope. Soldiers at the top of the ramp ran from the cover of their vehicle, knelt, and pointed their rifles at the truck.
“Out the passenger side!” Hasta shouted. “Everyone run!”
They piled out the far side of the truck in a confusion of limbs and plunged into the deepening snow. Fog shrouded the interstate ahead, an impenetrable wall fifty yards downslope. Hasta’s father grabbed her hand and everyone headed for the fog. The snow was up to Hasta’s hips, the going nearly impossible.
Ear-piercing shots sounded. Hasta looked back. At the top of the ramp, more dogs had swarmed the soldiers, who were now trying only to defend themselves. She heard shouts and screams, and not a few yelps and howls of agony.
She stopped where she was, eyes streaming, unable to look away from the distant fighting. Her father tugged at her hand.
“Hasta, hurry! If we make the fog, we might get away!”
But she didn’t move. “Those dogs are dying! Maybe soldiers too.” She started back the way they’d come.
One huge black dog stood silhouetted at the top of the ramp against the grey clouds. It turned its blue, blue eyes toward her—she swore she could see them even from that distance—then broke away from the fight and charged down the slope. Hasta stood transfixed.
“Hasta, please!” her father shouted. From farther down the ramp, the rest of the group echoed his pleas.
The dog was bigger than she was, all shrouded in curly black fur that bounced as it ran. It bounded down the ramp and around the work truck. Snow flew in great clods from its feet as it plunged toward her. Ten feet away, it planted its paws and skidded through snow higher than its head. It stopped in front of her, bowing its front end low. Its rump stuck up in the air, its tail a wagging blur. The dog growled and barked.
“Hasta, come on!” shouted Ivan.
She glanced down the on-ramp. Ivan was half-hidden by the fog, as was Juan beside him, and both were motioning for her to come. Frida, Kylie and LaVell were out of sight already. Her father was still waiting nearby, but he looked torn.
The dog barked again, an encouraging and yet somehow urgent sound. It nudged her knee with its muzzle, then bowed again. Hasta saw blood on the snow beneath the dog.
“Oh, my God, you’re hurt,” she said.
The dog sighed deeply, whining a little, then sat back and yawned. It barked again, grabbed the hem of Hasta’s parka in its mouth, and tugged. Then the dog let go and ran down the ramp past her father.
“Will you come now?” her father said, holding out his hand.
Hasta took it, and together they waded as fast as they could after the big dog. It plowed up and down through the snow like a black whale through white seas.
Downslope, Ivan and Juan vanished into the fog. Behind her, men screamed, rifles discharged, animals howled. The dog ahead of her slipped into the fog. Hand in hand, Hasta and her father followed.
His grip began warm and solid in her hand, but, a few feet into the gray fog, cool vapor squeezed out from between her fingers in streams.
She stopped, looking around desperately. “Raj!” she said. “Where are you?”
Before her the way was dark, but the fog behind her glowed with an unreal light, illuminated from without. There in the half-light stood her father, hands pressed against an invisible barrier.
“Hasta, I can’t go any farther,” he said, his voice coming as if from another room. He pushed. “I can’t get through.”
She ran back to him. Nothing prevented her from grabbing both his hands. “Yes, you can,” she said, pulling. “Daddy, you can!” But she couldn’t budge him.
Her father’s expression was hard to read in the strange light, but she could hear the grief in his voice. “Flower, I don’t think I can come with you,” he said. “But you have to go. You have to run. Go, Hasta!”
And so, weeping and blind, she did. √
END OF PART III