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Authors: Tim Pratt

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Briarpatch by Tim Pratt (23 page)

BOOK: Briarpatch by Tim Pratt
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“Fuck you,” Nicholas muttered. “Let’s just get this over with.”

Echo exhaled gently over his cock, not touching it, and when Nicholas cursed her, she giggled. The leather outfit was better when she knelt. It pulled tight through her crotch, but in a good way. Nicholas didn’t turn her on particularly, but the idea of playing a scene like this did, and she wiggled a little against the harness, letting the leather rub her right.

They stayed like that for a minute, waiting for the door to open, and for Darrin to come up the stairs.

3

Darrin walked along the sidewalk, with the persistent sense of another world so close to this one: sometimes shimmering at the edges of his vision, and other times so natural he couldn’t tell the entry points to the briarpatch from ordinary streets. He needed answers, and hoped Arturo could provide them. But if he couldn’t, Darrin would still confront Ismael. He would go back tomorrow, with a backpack and some food and water, and simply wait on the front steps all day if Ismael wasn’t there when Darrin arrived. His life had been upended in the past six months, almost everything he had known and trusted torn away from him, and he believed Ismael was at the root of it.

Walking with his head down, Darrin almost passed his own front steps. Sighing, trying to bring himself back into the present, he walked briskly up the steps, checked the mailbox—just bills, which he didn’t want to deal with now, so he left them in the box—and to the door. He put his key in, but the door was unlocked, which meant Echo was here, probably. He did
not
want to deal with Echo just now. If he tried to talk to her about these things, she would think he was crazy, maybe rightly so.

“Echo?” he called, trying to sound happy about her presence. Maybe she could take his mind off things for a while. She was good at that.

He came up the stairs, and into the living room, and saw his girlfriend on her knees, giving his best friend a blowjob.

The feeling was like being hit in the back of the head with a brick, and simultaneously kicked in the stomach. He wanted to fold up on himself, but he stood unmoving in the doorway instead. Nicholas leapt from the couch, trying to untangle his legs from his pants, eyes wide, face horrified. Echo, in contrast, simply leaned back, turned half-around, and gave him an annoyed look. She was dressed in the sort of outfit Darrin usually only saw on certain websites, the kind of outfit he would have sworn she would never wear.

“Shit, Darrin, it’s not what you think, she, she seduced me—”

“Oh, shut up.” Echo turned her look of annoyance on Nicholas. “Maybe the first time I seduced you, but this time
you
called
me
.” She turned back to Darrin and gave him a look of pity. “I didn’t expect you home so soon, hon. I’m sorry you had to see this. I didn’t want you to find out this way.”

Nicholas pulled up his pants, trying to get his belt buckled. He looked sweaty and miserable and Darrin almost felt sorry for him, somewhere down deep below the ice in his belly. “Get out,” he said. “Both of you, get out.”

Nicholas and Echo exchanged glances, and then Echo laughed. “Sorry, no dice, try again, Darrin. I know for a fact you had to borrow money from Nicholas to pay your rent for the past two months, and
I
paid your last fucking power bill. People who depend on the kindness of strangers shouldn’t be so high and mighty. So how about
you
leave instead? We’re not finished yet.”

Darrin wanted to hit Nicholas, who was just looking at him stupidly now, not speaking. He wanted to curse at Echo, who was staring at him with open contempt. But he was just too tired, too withered inside, too beaten-up.
It’s too much
, he thought. Losing Bridget, losing his job, seeing Bridget die, fearing for his sanity, and now
this
, his oldest friend sleeping with a woman he’d started to trust, the two people closest to him having an affair right under his nose, and now reminding him of all his insufficiencies as a man.

“Beat it, Darrin.” Echo made a shooing-away gesture. “Come back in a couple of hours. You can have the place once Nicholas is done with me. I’ll let you have a turn then, if you’re good.”

“I never want to see you again,” he said, and then looked at Nicholas. “Or you.”

“Darrin,” Nicholas said. “Please, I didn’t mean . . .” He looked genuinely anguished, but there were no more words forthcoming, just a mute gesture of helplessness.

“So you never want to see us again. So we’ll fucking
blindfold
you when you get back,” Echo said. “Just get lost for a while. Maybe go out and look for a
job
for a change, how’d that be?”

Darrin turned and went down the stairs, half running, half falling, tears starting to well up in his eyes, rage and sadness all mixed together. He’d come back, all right, he’d change the locks on his doors, he’d have them arrested for trespassing, it was still his name on the lease, the cops wouldn’t care if Nicholas had helped him with the rent. Shit, there was nothing holding him here anymore, he wouldn’t renew his lease next month, he’d get his security deposit back and he’d take off, fuck Ismael, fuck finding out what happened to Bridget, fuck
all
of it, he’d just get
away
, anything was better than this, anywhere, just
away

Someone shouted his name. Echo, probably. To hell with her. He sped up.

When Darrin rushed across the street, Ismael Plenty was there, stepping from a patch of nowhere, opening his mouth to say something, but Darrin didn’t wait for him to speak, just launched himself at the man, letting all his rage and desperation out in a single shout, reaching for Ismael, intending to shake either answers or the life out of him.

Ismael sidestepped neatly as Darrin passed by, unable to halt his own movement.

A steep stairway appeared before Darrin’s eyes—though really it was more like it had always been there, and he’d just
noticed
it now. Darrin nearly fell down the stairs, grabbing onto the iron handrail at the last moment to arrest his fall. Darrin turned around, eyes wide, gasping, and Ismael stood at the head of the stairs, looking down on him. “Darrin. You don’t want to hurt me. If you do, you’ll never see Bridget again. And you
do
want to see her again, don’t you?”

Darrin stared at him, swallowed hard, and said, “Yes, you son of a bitch. Yes, I want to see her again.”

“I’ll take you to her,” Ismael said simply. “Come along.” He went down the stairs and into the briarpatch. After a moment, Darrin followed, because he couldn’t think of any reason to refuse.

Two: into the briarpatch
Arturo Gets Carjacked

1

Orville crouched by the edge of the rooftop, looking down at the lake below. “This is really the quickest way? I mean, the house is only about a mile from here, we could just walk.”

“The more you travel in the briarpatch, the easier it gets,” Bridget said. “The more connections you can make out. I think you can get from anywhere to anywhere if you just know the right route. Though not everyone can go everywhere, or see the same passageways. Ismael says the briarpatch is a subjective place.” She stood on the edge of the high apartment building, with its view of Lake Merritt. Orville supposed that, being dead, she didn’t fear falling. He was not so comfortable. Being this high up reminded him of his jump from the Golden Gate Bridge. He could still remember the sense of enormous, lurking pain beneath the fog of morphine in the hospital, before Bridget found him a new body. And now she was telling him they
had
to jump. He supposed there was no choice, really. The doorway on the roof was locked, so they couldn’t go down the building’s stairs. The route they’d taken through the briarpatch to get here—along a mouldy hallway with a low ceiling of roots—was apparently a one-way street, because he couldn’t see the way back, either. The only exit in sight was hovering just a foot or so away from the edge of the roof, and perhaps eighteen inches below the roofline. It was a sort of shimmering blue oval, and Bridget assured him she’d been that way before.

“I used to take this shortcut from Ismael’s house to my—to Darrin’s apartment all the time. Just go for it, Orville. You trust me, don’t you?”

Orville nodded mutely. He took a breath, stood up, and looked at the shimmering oval. He’d never had the greatest hand-eye coordination, and could easily see himself tripping on the roof’s edge, tumbling like a rag doll to land on the edge of the lake with a splat. But this new body seemed smarter—or at least more used to being used—than his old one had been. He bent his legs, tensed, and jumped out.

This new body really was stronger than his old one, and he nearly overshot his mark, and came within a handsbreadth of sailing above the entry to the briarpatch. Bridget cried out, a wordless sound of anguish, and Orville put his legs together, trying to make himself into an arrow that would fall straight down. The blue shimmered beneath him—not as inviting as the light he’d glimpsed on his fall from the Golden Gate Bridge, but still pretty, the rich blue he’d seen in pictures of tropical waters.

His fall ended abruptly when he landed in an enormous heap of straw. Orville laughed aloud, staring up at a late afternoon sky the same blue as the shimmering portal, with a huge full moon—not, he was sure, the moon he was used to, though he couldn’t have said exactly how it differed—hanging above his head. The air smelled wonderful, and Orville took great deep gulps. “God, what is that, those smells?” Having his sense of smell was like learning the world all over again, and he’d been making Bridget identify odours all morning.

Bridget, who’d landed beside him, or tagged along, or transitioned in whatever bodiless way she had, spoke from some other part of the haystack. “Apples. Fresh-mown hay. Just a whiff of distant fires. I haven’t explored this place much, because the exit to my old neighbourhood is so nearby, but it’s always autumn here. A good thing, too, or otherwise this heap of straw might be gone one of these times, and we wouldn’t have that nice soft landing. I think time works differently in this place. I don’t think the moon has moved more than a few degrees across the sky in all the times I’ve come this way.”

Orville struggled to sit up, which, in the mass of straw, was a bit like trying to do jumping jacks in quicksand. He finally got his head high enough to look around, and saw a vast field, dotted with heaps of straw, and in the far distance, against a backdrop of brown hills, a lodge of timbers and sod that looked too gigantic to be real. The straw pile he rested in seemed impossibly high—not quite as high as the building he’d jumped from, but a close contender. He sat back before vertigo could make him sick. “How do we get down from here, Bridget?”

“Well—” Bridget began, and then there was a sound, a slow creak from the direction of the timbered lodge. Orville struggled to his knees again, the straw shifting beneath him, and looked out across the field. One whole wall of the lodge was slowly, ponderously swinging open, and he realized the wall was merely a door, built into the side of one of the brown hills. And now, with incredible slowness, that door was opening, and if they waited long enough, they would see the denizens of this autumn land begin gradually to emerge.

Orville wondered if they would be horrible, or wonderful, or merely strange. But he didn’t really want to find out.

“We dig down,” Bridget said, and there was fear in her voice. If the dead woman was afraid, that was motivation enough for Orville. “Just dig down into the haystack, Orville, make a hole and
wiggle
.”

Orville did so, diving in, pulling handfuls of straw aside and burrowing down, letting gravity help as much as possible. He heard small squeaks and felt mice scurrying away from his touch, but that didn’t make any sense, if the larger creatures of this world and the moon moved so slowly, shouldn’t the small creatures, too? Bridget was descending near him, and once he was deep in the dark, itchy depths of the haystack, he actually ran into her, and the contact was like bumping into a tiny windstorm.

“Here,” Bridget said, “hollow out a cavity,” and Orville threw his weight around, pushing back the walls of straw. It was totally black, and then there was another creak—like the ongoing creak of the door in the hill opening, but quieter, and more brief—and light came in.

“Shit, my hands, I can’t get a grip, I
hate
this. . . .” Bridget pointed to a wooden trap door.”Can you open that?”

Orville did—it wasn’t that heavy—and light spilled up from the passageway it revealed.

A peal of thunder shook the air. Bridget stared at him, eyes wide in the light coming up from the trapdoor. “I think that was the sound of the big door hitting the hill when it opened all the way. Let’s go.” Orville dropped down into the opening, and reality did one of its disorienting, vertiginous flips—he’d fallen down, but now he was standing in a passageway, and the trapdoor was in the wall behind him, not in the roof, like it should have been. He leaned against a concrete wall, water-stained but dry, and steadied himself. Bridget came after him, the trapdoor closing. “That door never opened before, Orville. I wonder what’s coming
through
it?” She sounded shaken. “Come on.” She hurried down the passageway, toward the bright light at the end, and Orville followed.

They emerged, blinking in the afternoon sun, from the side of Darrin’s building. Orville looked behind him, confused, and the passageway they’d followed was gone—there was a dirty storage room there now, with a furnace and some yard tools leaning against the dank walls. Bridget followed the path that went toward the front of the house, and Orville went with her. “It’s later than it should be.” She shaded her eyes against the sun. “I think something went funny with time in that place with the haystack, usually it seems to cut time off the trip, that’s why it’s such a good shortcut, but I guess that’s not a constant, because by the sun it looks like hours have gone by. Shit. We’d better—”

A man came barrelling down the stairs from Darrin’s house, head down, talking to himself. He stalked across the street.

BOOK: Briarpatch by Tim Pratt
11.08Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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