Root: Part IV, Chapter 8
One jump away from Mount Rushmore but too exhausted to reliably proceed, Hasta and crew circle the wagons as a new set of enemies approaches.
For more on this project, please see “This Year a Serial Takes Root.”
“I swear to God it looked like a zombie,” Kylie said breathlessly.
“It wasn’t a zombie,” said Juan.
Kylie knotted her hands in her hair. “It climbed out of the ground.”
Hasta gestured toward the chokecherry trees growing near the left side of the big Ace Hardware store. It was autumn according to the calendar, but bright white flowers festooned their branches. “The trees aren’t even acting right,” she said. “I won’t discount the possibility of zombies.”
Juan folded his arms. “Fine. But it wasn’t a zombie. I think it was that little agent guy. Daemon, whatever. It was hard to tell under all the dirt.”
“I’d rather it was a zombie,” said Hasta. “All the more reason to get our bearings and get moving as fast as we can. Juan, you guard the van with Frida. Kylie, inside with me.”
“Aye-aye, ace,” said Juan, saluting.
Hasta caught the silly grin before it spread across her face. “Not you too, chief,” she said as Juan spun on his heel and marched toward the van.
“Zombie,” said Kylie to Juan’s back.
After Frida had brought her back from the marble plain, Hasta had insisted on getting flipped again. This was where she’d ended up, the empty parking lot of a giant hardware store beside a narrow rural highway. Lonely trees dotted the grassy land around the store, and a rushing stream was audible somewhere on the side opposite the highway. The mist hung back a good quarter-mile in every direction, which led Hasta to believe they were on the right track again.
She and Kylie entered the store through the automatic sliding glass doors. It appeared deserted, but bright fluorescent lights in cages shone down from the thirty-foot ceiling. Aisles and aisles of power tools, fastener bins, cleaning supplies, and even animal feed stretched away into the recesses of the huge space.
Hasta ripped a curling receipt from the output slot of the nearest cash register, while Kylie fetched a handful of travel maps from a spinning rack. “Belvidere, South Dakota,” Hasta said, reading the address printed at the top of the receipt.
Kylie spread a South Dakota map on the checkout counter and ran a finger down the index. “Got it,” she said, tapping a grid square in the southwest part of the state. “We’re here on Sixty-three, just south of Ninety. That’s puts us maybe . . . a hundred and thirty miles from Rushmore.”
“Great!” said Hasta, hope swelling her chest for the first time in what seemed like forever. She grinned across the map. “One more jump just might put us there.”
But Kylie’s eyes were hollow and baggy. She winced as if in pain. “Hasta,” she said, “I don’t know if I have another shot in me right now. That last one—it really took it out of me. Can’t we just drive?”
Hasta felt her spirits fall again, but forced herself to cling to hope. She grabbed a candy bar from the rack by the cash register and set it on the conveyor belt. “Flip that.”
Kylie tried. The candy bar didn’t move.
Hasta chewed her lower lip. If Kylie was tapped out, then Frida probably was too. Juan, who’d had more practice, might still be okay, but Hasta doubted she and Juan could flip someone the rest of the way alone.
“Let’s test Frida and Juan, see how they’re doing,” Hasta said, walking back toward the sliding glass doors. “A two-hour drive might take more time than we have left.”
But Juan and Bobby were coming inside. “We might have a problem,” said Juan. “We hear an engine.”
Hasta’s heart seized up. There was no time to worry about whether someone friendly, hostile, or neutral was coming, or even if they were going to stop. “Get everyone inside,” she said.
Juan and Kylie carried Ivan from the van, while Bobby and Frida brought Elaine, whom Hasta had refused to leave behind at the shattered rest area. Both were still comatose. Moses trotted into the store and began sniffing around warily.
Hasta went out front to fetch LaVell, who was standing by the shopping carts with his arms folded. He looked for all the world like a sheriff waiting for the outlaws to arrive.
“Inside,” she said, tugging at him. The swelling growl of a sports-car engine in the distance made her palms sweat.
It was the daemons. It had to be. That last flip was leading them here.
LaVell nodded toward the short segment of highway that showed in the arc of the mist. “I hope this is good,” he said, letting himself be dragged through the door, “because I’m getting pretty bored. And I’ve already won the bet.”
“I have a bet about how long you’ll survive if I leave you here outside,” Hasta said.
The others were huddled in a group between the checkout counters and the merchandise aisles, near Ivan and Elaine. Their comatose forms gave Hasta an idea.
“Listen up,” she said. “We need to work fast.”
Outside, gravel crunched as the car turned off the highway. √
To be continued…