Discover more from William Shunn’s Main Wish Null
Root: Part III, Chapter 6
Ivan’s tiny prison cell brings back a childhood trauma he had tried to forget, complicating his escape attempts. Meanwhile, Kylie receives another plea for help.
Apologies for the lateness of this week’s chapter! For more on this project, please see “This Year a Serial Takes Root.”
Metal mesh. That was what helped Ivan get a grip on himself. The closet was lined with metal mesh.
He’d been rubbing the surface obsessively, with both hands, for what seemed like forever. It wasn’t like the inside of the front closet at home, where the smells of fabric softener and cedar balls came clear only with the door shut and locked from the outside, when the absence of light and sound heightened the other senses, and heightened his darker imagination too.
“Honey, I’m sorry,” his mother would say as he cried and begged, her EMT uniform shirt preternaturally crisp and white in the gloaming light. “I don’t want to do it, but you know I can’t trust you by yourself, and we can’t afford a sitter. You’re the man of the house now, so I need you to be a man.”
And Ivan would back up dutifully, filled with shame from the tears burning his face, but more ashamed of his failure to be the man his mother needed him to be. He would back up until the coats and extra dresses his mother never wore anymore draped his shoulders, neck, and head like spider webs, and the closing, latching door brought the one thing worse than shame: total darkness.
Ivan was four.
His mother’s shift lasted eight hours, so on the best occasions he was only alone in the dark for nine. That was if no urgent emergency unfolded in the wee hours of the morning, which could push the end of the shift past four o’clock and toward five or six. Sometimes the urgent emergency was the one drink she had to grab with the guys after they clocked out. Sometimes the one drink stretched out to two, or four.
Sometimes he would hear his mother clomp into the apartment, and his heart would soar—only to hear her stagger to the couch and pass out. Sometimes she would hear him yelling and drag herself to the closet door. Sometimes not.
The nights, meanwhile, were interminable. Huddled at the bottom of the closet amongst the shoes and boots, with his blanket and his pillow and his stuffed frog, it was hard to imagine that the world outside still existed. As he dozed in and out of sleep and terror, the walls would seem to melt away, opening up a vast black landscape in which monsters and killers roamed. Sometimes he felt the hot breath of some hungry predator on the back of his neck, saberlike teeth poised to sever his spine, or sensed the blade aimed at his pounding heart. He would sit straight up in fear, shouting as his head plunged amongst the dresses that hung like the strewn innards of previous victims. Then, perspiring and breathing shallowly in the stuffy closet, he would swear to God he wasn’t going to fall asleep again. If he felt himself nodding off, he’d twist the skin of his inner arm until his eyelids stayed open like they were supposed to.
Sometimes—often at first—he woke to the clammy press and stinking reek of his wet pajama bottoms.
Eventually Ivan learned a few tricks. The most important was being sure to pee two or three times before his mother left for work. On those evenings—her shifts ran four nights on, four night off—he would also drink no liquid. He kept a stash at the back of the closet that grew to include packaged snacks, a small flashlight, and some comic books—anything to help distract him through the long night.
By the end of kindergarten, he had added a bent piece of coat hangar to the stash, but the way he kept falling asleep at his desk caused his teacher to recommend him for a class of kids with learning disabilities. He worked for weeks to learn to jimmy the door from the inside. When his mother came home three nights in a row to find the closet door closed and locked but Ivan safe asleep in his own bed, she quietly stopped “sending him to the sitter,” as she called it.
But what kept Ivan from losing his mind entirely over the course of that first year was his sense of touch. Once he’d gathered enough of his wits and courage about him, he would explore his environment with his hands. The slick, somewhat pebbly surface of the painted walls, the cracked and splintery wood of the floor, the decorative, brassy inlay of the doorknob plate that induced a metallic taste at the back of his mouth when he touched it—he came to know all these textures the way his tongue knew the back of his teeth. He would run his fingers up the hems of each dress hanging above him, counting them over and over, learning to tell each from the next by the feel of the fabric, trying to guess which cloth came in which color, and often being surprised in the morning to discvoer that, for instance, the delicate floral pattern of one dress completely failed to match the rough texture of its weave.
He counted the buttons on each item, the eyelets in all the shoes, the teeth in every coat’s zipper. His fingertips and concentration eventually became so sensitized that he could count, or so he imagined, every stitch in every seam of every dress.
Touching and counting, he learned to get by.
The metal mesh of his new prison felt like nothing he remembered from that suffocating old closet. When the unexpectedness of his confinement had worn off, when the shouting and weeping and rocking had run their course and only terror and disorientation remained, the texture of the mesh wormed its slow way into his consciousness from the pads of the distant hands he put out to steady himself.
Mesh—cool, silvery, and fine. A simple over-under weave, up and down, side to side, square and not hexagonal in pattern. Maybe a millimeter of space between each strand and its neighbor.
Ivan tried to relax, to let his fascination with the texture flow through him and scour out the fear. With his arms and back braced against the walls, he levered himself carefully to his feet. He explored the boundaries of his cell. Three feet by three feet square, ceiling less than a foot above his head. Every surface, even the floor, covered by that mesh and backed by some hard, unyielding substance that rang dully when struck. A few finger-sized ventilation holes in the ceiling—not in the mesh but in the substance behind it. The seam of a door in one wall, but no hinges, knob, or latch. He battered both shoulders against the door but couldn’t budge it.
Bathed in sweat, Ivan peeled off his winter coat and sweater, letting them puddle around his feet. The air was growing hot, despite the vent holes. Scoping the interior of the cell told him nothing he didn’t already know.
He tried to steady his breathing. Assuming Hasta’s aim was good, this had to be the little room he’d seen on the blueprint of A.A.’s bunker. But what were the chances that, out of all that open interior space, she would put him exactly here? Not high. Which meant this must be a trap.
Ivan pulled out his phone and flipped it open. The mild orange light hurt his dark-adapted eyes. No bars. This was a dead zone. Either that or the blackout had knocked out the cell carriers. Or . . .
Or the mesh might be grounded, which would make the room a Faraday cage, blocking radio signals.
He pried again at the door seam but couldn’t get any purchase, so he tried a different tack. Pressing himself against the back wall, he tried flipping the door. A shock of pain jolted his arm to the elbow, as if he’d jammed his finger.
He made a fist, attempting to seize the door gesturally and wrench it open, but he couldn’t get purchase on it. He failed also at opening a window so he could examine the building’s floor plan again. What worked everywhere else did not seem to work in here.
Eventually Ivan slid to the floor, exhausted. It was so hot he could barely breathe, and he was tired. God, so tired.
Before he could think to start pinching his skin, his eyes drifted shut.
“And please listen closely, students,” Principal Armisted said from the front of the gym. “If you see or hear anything out of the ordinary—someone inside the school you think doesn’t belong here, a fellow student acting strangely or erratically—report it to me or to Assistant Principal Bitzer immediately. People, this is vital.”
Kylie was standing near the rear exit so she could make a quick escape when this farce was over. A quiet, insistent buzz sounded from her backpack. A couple of nearby students glared at her as she tried to fish her phone unobtrusively from the side pocket. She glared back. She was annoyed with this assembly, annoyed with Hasta Veeramachaneni, annoyed with her stupid father, annoyed with whoever was texting her. But just this moment she was annoyed with the principal most of all. Armisted had just finished telling everyone that cell phone and internet service were down, which was obviously a lie.
“This is not a drill,” the principal said. There were only about forty students present and fewer than a dozen teachers. They were here instead of the auditorium because at least the gym had windows high in its walls. “Report anything strange. And for the sakes of your lives, do not set foot outside the school for any reason. The very fact that you’re here means you evaded the military recruiters outside, but you won’t be so fortunate a second time.”
Kylie turned away, shielding the glow of her phone. The message was from Ivan’s number:
hey k! omg in so much trouble need ur help pls
Now what annoyed her was her stupid heart, the way it leapt inside her. Ivan asking her for help!
“But Principal Armisted,” one of the jocks was asking, “what if we want to serve our country? Isn’t it our civic duty in a time of national need?”
As the principal framed an answer, Kylie quietly pushed backward against the exit door’s crash bar. She slipped into the hallway and eased the door shut again. She hurried toward her locker, walking on the edges of her feet to minimize the squeaking of her snow boots. The halls were already grimy with road salt, mud, and melted snow. She texted back:
ok where r u?
So maybe that ill-mannered Indian minx had told the truth about Ivan being in trouble. Kylie still couldn’t figure out how Hasta had disappeared like that, but what do you know? When push came to shove, Ivan had turned to Kylie for help. Maybe, whatever this was, it would end up with him begging her to take him back.
She would, too. She might let him twist in the wind a little first, but she’d take him back. He might be a geek, but he was wicked funny and sharp when you got to know him, and cute too in that smart-boy way. He’d also recognized the dedication and ambition inside her, unlike everyone else at this school who only saw her as an uptight capital B.
As she reached her locker, the phone buzzed in her hand:
west of skool bhind green trnsfrmr pls hurry!
Kylie’s pulse quickened as she put on her coat. Maybe the Army recruiters were after him. Or no, more likely he’d finally had that big fight with his mother and she’d kicked him out.
Uh-oh. She hoped he didn’t need money.
on my way, she texted.
Cold air swirled in as she pushed open the door to the faculty parking lot. No one had shoveled back here, but it looked like plenty of people had slogged through the thigh-high snow from the direction of the park. She could hear shouts from around the building, but this side seemed to be clear of soldiers.
Across the parking lot she could see the green metal transformer box jutting a foot above the piled snow. “Ivan?” Kylie called softly. “Are you there?”
Spooked by another volley of distant shouts, she hurried across the snow-clogged parking lot. As she neared the transformer, she took a few steps to one side, trying to see around it. There was Ivan’s rusty orange bike, lying on its side in a snowdrift.
“Ivan!” she said, scurrying toward the bike. Somewhere in the far distance, she heard the barking of dogs, fierce barking, frantic barking.
Dogs had always scared her.
She drew even with the transformer. Two shaggy mounds were crouched behind it.
“Ivan?” she said timidly.
The two men in fur coats sprang at her without a word. √
To be continued…