Discover more from William Shunn’s Main Wish Null
Root: Part IV, Chapter 5
With Ivan unconscious and unresponsive, the rest of the team tries to figure out how to proceed—until a fire at their truck stop forces them to move faster than expected.
For more on this project, please see “This Year a Serial Takes Root.”
“Ivan!” screamed Hasta, rushing to where he lay facedown on the pavement. She barely noticed the buildings, gas pumps, and pine trees scattered around the huge travel plaza. She dropped to her knees beside him, shaking his shoulder.
Somewhere nearby she heard the minivan brake to a stop. Frida was beside her a few moments later, and together they rolled Ivan onto his back. His arm flopped like a cooked noodle. His eyes were closed, but he was breathing.
“What happened to him?” Frida asked, eyes wide.
“I don’t know,” said Hasta. She fought back a sob of despair. “He came through the window and just fell.” She shook his shoulder. “Ivan, wake up. Come on!”
The others soon gathered around. Kylie knelt near Ivan’s head just as Frida pried his eyelid open. Moses paced nearby and whined. The white of Ivan’s eye glowed with a faint yellow light.
“Oh, no,” said Frida, sitting back on her heels.
“What?” Hasta asked.
Frida sighed heavily, looking away.
Kylie was stroking Ivan’s hair. “Frida, what is it? Tell us.”
Frida looked around at everyone and licked her lips. “This is why you shouldn’t do magic when you’ve been using.”
“Using?” Hasta shook her head, feeling a little dizzy. “I don’t know what you mean.”
With obvious reluctance, Frida said, “Hasta, that’s what drift does. A normal dose blocks your ability to do magic—blocks out the dreams, too. But a half-dose or less, it doesn’t prevent you from doing magic. It just sort of weakens you when you do, and makes you really sick.”
“You seem fine.”
“I’m not, really. Maybe a little more used to it than he is.”
“But Ivan doesn’t do drift,” Hasta said. “I would know.”
“Me too,” said Kylie.
Frida spread her hands. “I wouldn’t have thought so either, from the way he talked earlier,” she said. “But, I mean, look at him.”
Kylie lifted Ivan’s other eyelid. The yellow glow was obvious.
Hasta took a deep breath, trying to process the awful evidence in front of her. “Okay,” she said, “let’s just deal with it. What can we do for him?”
Frida shrugged, eyes wide with desperation. “I saw Dennis Clegg like this once. Erin gave him some juice. That seemed to help bring him around.”
“Juice,” repeated Hasta. She laid a hand on Ivan’s chest. “Like, fruit juice? Does anyone have juice?”
No one responded.
“Come on,” Hasta said. “All the snacks we grabbed, and no one got juice?” She saw that Juan was hanging back from the group, his arms folded tightly across his chest. “Juan! We need juice—orange juice, I guess. Bobby, go with him. There’s got to be something in that big building. Hurry! And be careful.”
Juan and Bobby rushed off across the broad parking area toward a long, rustic-style wooden building with a peaked roof and lots of gables. It stood about fifty yards away, beyond a stand of Shell pumps.
Hasta rose and turned to LaVell. “I don’t suppose you have anything to offer?” she said.
LaVell shrugged, a hint of amusement on his face. “Personal opinion? I think I just won a bet.” He walked away and climbed into the back of the van.
Clenching her hands, Hasta knelt by Ivan again. “He doesn’t do drift,” she said, glaring at Frida.
“Okay, okay,” said Frida, raising her palms.
“Here, let’s put this under his head.” Hasta untied the sleeves of the coat wrapped around Ivan’s waist. As she folded the coat into a pillow, a fat bag of brown powder fell out onto the pavement. Moses jumped to his feet and growled at it.
Hasta stared at it without comprehension. She looked at Frida, who wouldn’t meet her eyes. Betrayal creased Kylie’s face.
Hasta snatched up the baggie, surged to her feet, and cranked her arm back to throw it as far as she could.
“No!” said Frida said, rising. There was caution on her face, and hunger.
Hasta lowered her arm. “Why not?” she said.
“We might need that,” said Frida. “You know.” She looked miserable. “If things get bad.”
“Things are bad.” Hasta shook her head, her anger cooling to mere disgust. Hasta stuffed the baggie into the front pocket of her jeans. “Fine, there. If anyone wants it, they’ll have to talk to me about it.”
Kylie had placed the coat under Ivan’s head. As Hasta knelt beside him again, she heard a shout from the direction of the wooden building. Moses started barking. Juan and Bobby were just rounding the gas pumps, running back toward the minivan as fast as they could.
“Fire!” Juan yelled. “Fire!”
Hasta surged to her feet. Two columns of gray smoke rose from the back of the distant building. More was pouring out the front door.
“We have to move,” Hasta said. “Kylie, Frida, help me get Ivan into the van.”
They were still struggling to get him lifted as Juan reached them, breathing hard.
“What happened?” Hasta demanded.
Juan stepped in to take some of Ivan’s weight. “Didn’t notice at first,” he panted, “but whole back of the place, restaurant part, filled with smoke. Couldn’t smell it. Thought at first it was just the fog getting in.”
They laid Ivan on the minivan’s rear bench seat, while Bobby pulled up coughing and wiping his eyes. With everyone aboard they roared off, Juan at the wheel. Hasta looked back to see the entire roof of the building engulfed in flames. She wondered if all the gasoline tanks would go up.
“Which way?” Juan asked. The travel center was near I-35, a couple of miles south of I-90. A confusing cluster of signs for both interstates pointed toward roads that curved off into the fog.
“North, I guess,” said Hasta. “Just go. Get some distance from this place and then we’ll make another jump. Bobby, Juan, did you guys see anyone inside that building?”
“Not a soul,” said Bobby from the seat behind her. He was still coughing. “Place was creepy empty.”
“Someone set that fire,” Hasta said. “It didn’t just accidentally start when we showed up.”
“Maybe they’re following us,” said Kylie. She was all the way in the back, kneeling on the floor beside Ivan’s seat.
“Watch out the rear window,” Hasta said, though in her side-view mirror all she could see was the mist closing in behind them. “Now, everyone, I have to know. Is anyone else in this van carrying drift? Bobby? Kylie?” She licked her lips. “Juan? No offense, but I need to know.”
The van was silent. At last Juan spoke up, keeping his eyes firmly on the road. “I’m not telling you I never tried it,” he said, “but I’m totally fine, I swear. I was jonesing a little last night, but I’m fine now. In fact, I’ve never felt better.” He turned beseeching eyes toward Hasta. “I think it was my love for you that did the trick—all that time locked up in that room, not knowing if I’d see you again. I don’t have the least little craving for it now.”
Hasta had managed to forget Juan sneaking off at the school, but now another of her illusions was cracking and shattering before her eyes. She wanted to throw up, but mastered herself.
“We’ll talk about that later,” she said coldly. “And maybe you’ll have time to think of a way to include an apology in whatever you have to say to me then.”
She twisted in her seat. How stupid she’d been to let herself start thinking of any of these people as her friends. She didn’t understand what made them tick, what made them lie, what let them navigate so blithely through the cesspool that was the world they apparently lived in. She felt so fragile, so angry, and so very, very alone.
“Anyone else have anything to say?” she asked. “Frida? You got Gillian hooked, and she was supposed to get me. How come?”
Frida pursed her lips, looking deeply uncomfortable. “Bobby gave me my list. I was supposed to get everyone using, and that’s all I know. Erin got her list before me, and my name was on it. Gillian got hers after.”
“The boss already knew he wanted you,” Bobby said to Frida. “I think the other names were just—what’s the word? Like, camouflage.”
“Chaff,” Frida said, nodding. She looked like she wanted to cry. “So it wouldn’t be obvious who it was he was really going after. Which in the case of Gillian’s list, Hasta, must have been you.”
“But why?” Hasta asked. “What did I ever do to Mr. Sunshine?”
“A.A.,” said Bobby.
“Not what you ever did,” Frida said, “but maybe what you could do. A.A. had this big secret project he kept dropping hints about, all apocalyptic and stuff. I never really took it seriously, but I think Gillian did.” Her lower lip trembled. “Anyway, he might have been looking for help with it. He always made out like it was us few evolved folks against the whole useless human race.”
Hasta frowned. “Ivan figured out we’re linked together in some big chain, right? Maybe that’s a function of our powers, and maybe Mr. Sunshine found us all by just following the chain. The daemons keep implying that our powers somehow damage reality.”
“But if A.A. wanted us to destroy the world,” said Frida, “then why get us using a drug that suppresses our powers? He should have just showed us how to use them and let us rampage.”
Hasta shook her head. “Think about it. If we rampage, we end up with daemons on our tails. Not very helpful to his cause. But here’s the kicker—our powers also give us a way to stop him.”
“Whoa,” said Juan.
The whole van fell silent.
“Fascinating,” said LaVell. Hasta shot him a look.
“I think this might explain Brand and Adele,” Bobby said.
“Cory told me they never OD’d,” Hasta said. “According to him, it was the daemons.”
Bobby swallowed audibly. “I bet he’s right. They were smart. They must’ve figured out what was up and tried to do something about it.”
Hasta pressed her fingers to her temples in the silence that followed. “We need to hurry,” she said. “Kylie, anyone following us?”
“Not that I can see.”
“Time to make another jump, then. Kylie, you’re on the firing squad with me and Juan. Frida’s still on point.”
“But someone is following us!” Frida protested. “They were at that first rest stop, and they were at this one too. What if they’re waiting when you flip me?”
“Then you call me right away and we grab you through the window. It’s either that or we pull over now and just wait for the end.”
Driving north, they’d reached the interchange between I-35 and I-90. A long, curving ramp brought them onto the westbound interstate, where Juan pulled to a stop. Kylie was almost more nervous than Frida as they climbed out of the minivan set up the shot.
Hasta was counting down when Frida waved her hands and shouted, “Wait!”
Frida generated two comm windows and hurried over to Hasta. “How bad would it have sucked if I got there and realized I didn’t have one of these?” she said, handing one of the squares to Hasta.
“Bad,” said Hasta.
The flip went off fine, though, and it wasn’t ten seconds after Frida vanished that Hasta’s window buzzed.
“Talk to me, Frida,” she said.
“Oh, God, it’s horrible,” Frida sobbed. Something crackled loudly in the background of the call. “They’re all dead, Hasta. All of them.” √
To be continued…