Discover more from William Shunn’s Main Wish Null
Root: Part IV, Chapter 11
Trapped in a pit of A.A.’s making, Hasta’s crew must work together like never before if any of them hope to escape. But what if that means only one can?
For more on this project, please see “This Year a Serial Takes Root.”
Beneath their feet, the floor of the pit began to slope backward. Ivan, bruised from a twenty-foot fall and exhausted from everything else, began to lose his balance. He pitched himself forward onto his right shoulder, cradling his left elbow, which he thought might be broken. The floor tilted up to meet him, and then he and everyone else were sliding downhill.
He spun onto his back as he rushed toward the far wall of the pit. Below him LaVell was rolling like a ragdoll. Ivan raised his legs to avoid crushing the kid’s ribs as they both slammed into the wall. To Ivan’s right, Bobby screamed as he tried to keep his twisted left leg from hitting the wall.
“Look out!” Hasta shouted above him.
Ivan rolled aside just in time to keep Hasta from kicking him in the head on her way down.
He blinked up at the gray-shrouded sky. Groans and sobs came from either side of him, while mist seeped into the pit from above. His limbs felt unusually heavy, and it was hard for him to breathe. He rolled his head to the left. Hasta was looking back at him, flat on her back on the forty-five-degree slope, utter misery filling her eyes.
“Well, this isn’t looking good,” she said through gritted teeth. “Any bright ideas?”
He raised his shoulders, an unexpectedly difficult task. Beyond Hasta he could see Frida untangling herself from Juan and shakily trying to roll over onto her hands and knees. On the other side of him, Bobby moaned, “God, I hate that old scumbag,” then passed out.
Like smoke, the mist sank toward them.
It was obvious to Ivan what had to be done. That calculation was easy. The hard part was not to be afraid. If the world really was an illusion, and their true bodies were elsewhere, then there was nothing to be afraid of. And if this world was all that was real—well, the hard part was not to be afraid, or at least not to act afraid.
“I’m not sure all of us are getting out of this hole, ace,” said Ivan. He twisted himself onto his stomach, breathing hard. The very air seemed to weigh him down, pressing him into the slanted stone. “So we’re going to have to prioritize.”
He knelt up, against the resistance of his clumsy, heavy body. He reached toward Hasta, grabbed air with his fist, and pushed upslope.
“Hey!” said Hasta as she slid a couple of feet up the slope. She thrashed. “Ivan, no!”
“Yes.” Sweat sprang out all over Ivan’s body. His arm trembled and shook. His muscles felt like they would crack, but he heaved and twisted and Hasta slid ten feet farther up the slope.
“Ivan, I can’t do it alone!” Hasta said.
“I can’t,” huffed Ivan, “but you can. Come on, everyone! If you’re awake and able, we need you.”
Suddenly the strain on Ivan’s arms eased and Hasta shot another ten feet upslope. “Got her,” Juan said. He had pushed himself to his feet, his legs braced against the slanted stones and his back against the wall. Fist in the air, he supported his right arm with his left as he continued to push Hasta along.
“What do I do?” Frida asked, rising to her knees beside Juan. “How does it work?”
“Just reach toward her and grab,” Ivan said. “Then lift.”
“Guys, no, please,” Hasta said, and Ivan could see the tears glimmering on her face.
As Juan faltered, Ivan moved his arm back and got a fresh grip. When he pushed again, Hasta slid quickly and much more easily toward the higher wall of the pit. Frida was helping, and now, to the other side, he saw Kylie getting in on it too.
Hasta had reached the top of the slope. Now it was twenty feet straight up to the lip of the pit. “We’re doing it!” Ivan said. He put his left arm back to brace himself against the wall. “But this is the hard part. Big push!”
One by one, the four of them took fresh grips and heaved. Hasta rose three feet up the wall, and, apparently giving in to the communal will, torqued herself around so she was facing the stones. The morticed gaps between the flagstones were neither wide nor deep, but Hasta wedged her fingertips and the toes of her boots into the ones within reach and tried to help them help her climb.
Black spots swam in front of Ivan’s eyes. He felt a distant thrumming in his neck and in his brain, a growing guttural growl that he assumed was the trembling of his overstrained muscles.
The stress on his arm suddenly doubled. Hasta slowed and stopped a little more than halfway up the wall. Ivan looked left toward a shadow of motion.
The mist had descended almost as far as Kylie’s head. As Ivan fought to keep Hasta aloft, Kylie slumped to the flagstones.
“Watch the mist!” Ivan shouted. “The mist!”
Juan looked up suddenly to find the mist tickling the top of his head. He swatted at it as if trying to kill a fly, but then he too dropped to his knees and fell over, nearly knocking into Frida.
Ivan grunted, his arm wrenched painfully downward, and Hasta shrieked. She was starting to slip.
Nausea crushed Ivan’s stomach and washed through his head. He fell forward, catching himself with his left hand against the slope. The blackness swarmed in.
He blinked and caught a moment’s vision of marble tiles.
He swallowed and forced his eyes open. Gray flagstone and agony. Still in the pit, but with the growl no longer in his head.
“Frida,” he gasped, “you have to hold her! Five seconds is all I need!”
Another blink and he was on the dream plain.
Plain? Plane? Not a question that mattered. Axe in hand, Ivan whirled to find Kylie and Juan, with weapons drawn, facing a black wall of cloud that loomed dangerously near. Hasta, Frida, and LaVell stood nearby, asleep.
Lightning flashed in the depths of the cloudbank, lighting a huge swath of it from the inside.
“Sorry about this, dude,” Ivan said, turning Juan with a hand to his shoulder, “but I need that back.”
When Juan put up a hand in protest, Ivan slapped the haft of the axe against his open palm. Juan’s hand closed around it reflexively, and Ivan snatched the longsword by its hilt as Juan’s other hand opened.
“Thanks,” Ivan said, and willed his already open eyes open.
Hasta was slipping down the wall of the pit. Frida, tears of effort rolling down her face, thrust out an arm to steady herself against Ivan. Startled, Ivan glanced left to see Juan slumped in the very spot where he’d been kneeling seconds earlier.
Ivan felt as strong as an ox. He snatched at Hasta’s sinking body while at the same time pushing himself upright with a thrust of his legs, one foot braced on the slope and the other on the wall behind him. He heaved his fist into the air. Hasta flew up the wall, slapping at the stones as she went.
With his arm extended as far as it would go, Hasta’s head crested the lip of the pit. The last thing Ivan saw as the mist closed around his head was the little daemon from Chicago reaching down to seize her under the arms.
No, God, no, he thought before blacking out again. √
To be continued…