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Authors: Tim Pratt

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Briarpatch by Tim Pratt (30 page)

BOOK: Briarpatch by Tim Pratt
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But money didn’t spill from the glove compartment. When it popped open under the pressure of its contents, a flurry of thin strips of paper confettied out over Echo’s legs. She picked one up, frowned, and said “They’re fortunes. Like from fortune cookies.”

“I know a game you can play with those fortunes,” Arturo said. “You read the fortune out loud and add the words ‘in bed’ to the end.”

“Everybody knows that game,” Echo said. She picked up a fortune and said “Let them eat cake. In bed.” She tossed that fortune aside and took another from the pile on her lap. “Off with her head. In bed.”

“Not really my idea of a good time,” Arturo said. “Though the cake didn’t sound bad. I like a good piece of cake.”

“These aren’t even real fortunes. They aren’t even the sort of stupid-non-fortunes you usually get. How is ‘off with her head’ a fortune?” She read another: “All strange and terrible events are welcome, but comforts we despise.”

“In bed,” Arturo said helpfully.

Echo ignored him, and read more in quick succession: “‘In my end is my beginning. I am one of the people who love the why of things. All my possessions for a moment of time. Fools are more to be feared than the wicked. We are never tired, and we all love hospitals. In praising Antony I have dispraised Caesar. Great events make me quiet and calm; it is only trifles that irritate my nerves.’ What the fuck are these?”

“Huh,” Arturo said. “That one about the cake, that’s somethin’ Marie Antoinette supposedly said, when they told her the peasants didn’t have enough bread. And the ‘off with her head’ thing is from Alice in Wonderland, it’s what the Red Queen said to Alice.”

“It was the Queen of Hearts, not the Red Queen, idiot,” Echo said. “And everybody knows Marie Antoinette said that other thing.”

Arturo didn’t take offence at being called an idiot. He’d been called worse by better for less reason. “What I’m tryin’ to say is, maybe they’re all quotes from queens. They seem kinda queenly. That one about Antony and Caesar, that’s probably somethin’ Cleopatra said, right? In the Shakespeare play, anyway? So maybe the others are from queens, too.”

“Queens,” Echo said thoughtfully. “Empresses. Sure. But why would there be fortune cookies about queens?”

“One time the glove compartment was full of programs for productions of David Mamet plays. I didn’t think that meant much, and I don’t think this does either.” Though in truth he wondered. The Wendigo had a way of communicating obliquely, but what was it trying to say to Echo? Or to Arturo, about her?

Echo rolled down the window and let some of the fortunes go fluttering out into the wind. Arturo winced. Litter offended him—he saw too much of it on the roadsides he drove past. And while, in the real world, the Wendigo’s freight of paper tended to vanish after a little while, like fairy money, he wasn’t sure the same would be true here, in the briarpatch, where reality was more bendable.

“What’s that in the road up there?” Echo said.

Arturo looked where she pointed. There was something on the ground, something other than rocks, but he couldn’t tell what. Trash, it looked like.

“Stop the car there,” Echo said.

“Okay.” Opportunities for escape were fine by him. After another minute he reached the pile, and stopped the Wendigo.

“Turn off the car, and then get out,” Echo said.

So much for driving off when she got out. Arturo did as she said. She scooted across the seat and got out on his side, keeping her knife in plain sight. He could’ve taken off across the plain, but he was no good at getting around in the briarpatch without the Wendigo. Besides, Echo would probably have chased him. So he stood by, hands clasped before him, as Echo slammed the door.

“Okay, let’s check it out.” They walked around to the front of the Wendigo, and Echo gasped. “My shotgun!” She rushed to the weapon, an ostentatious chrome-plated job, and scooped it up in her arms. “How the hell did it get out here?”

“Mind if I pick up some of that water and beef jerky?” Arturo said. “I got some coupons for El Pollo Loco in the car, but I don’t think we’re gonna find a drive-through out here.”

“Sure, fine.” Echo pulled the backpack toward her and began rifling through it. “Damn it. No shells.”

“It makes a pretty club, though.” Arturo filled his pockets with jerky and picked up a couple of water bottles.

Echo opened the gun and laughed. “Oh, it’s loaded. Two shells, just like I left it. So don’t go thinking I’m defenceless.”

“That’s damn near the last thing you are.”

“I do wonder how it got here, though. Maybe Ismael took it, and dropped it here? So it’s a clue, right? But why drop it here? What—”

“Um,” Arturo said. “There’s bears out here.” A trio of grizzlies was approaching, still some distance away, but he knew bears could move fast if they wanted to. One of the bears had dozens of little blue ribbons woven into its fur, which undid any hope Arturo had that these were
ordinary
bears. These were the other kind of bear. He began backing toward the Wendigo.

“I didn’t tell you to move,” Echo snapped. “You listened to me when all I had was a knife, you’d damn sure better listen when I’ve got a gun.”

“Can you threaten me later? Bears! Get in the car!”

Echo finally looked around and saw the approaching animals. “Fuck. How can anything live in this desert?” She hurried to the passenger side.

Arturo got into the car and shut his door, and as soon as Echo was inside, he pressed the button that locked all the doors. The bears couldn’t work a door handle in this shape . . . but bears in the briarpatch had a distressing tendency to shapeshift. Arturo started up the Wendigo, put it in reverse, and glanced up to the rearview mirror.

There were five bears behind them, two big grizzlies, two smaller black bears, and one by-god polar bear, a variety Arturo had never encountered in the briarpatch before. “Oh, shit,” he said. “There’s a whole goddamn herd of bears back there, too.”

“A group of bears is called a sloth,” Echo said, twisting in her seat to look behind. “I heard that on a nature show. So what do we do?”

The bears ahead of them stopped at the pile of food and began nosing the contents around. Arturo wished he hadn’t picked up that jerky. “We try to get away,” Arturo said. More bears were ambling in from both directions, and there were over a dozen now, a bigger congregation of the creatures than he’d ever seen in one place before. The Wendigo was fairly well boxed-in, and while it was possible the grizzlies would scatter if he drove toward them, it was also possible they’d decide to attack. They wouldn’t be able to break into the Wendigo, but being stuck in a car with Echo, surrounded by ravening monsters pounding on the glass, wouldn’t be fun. And if they managed to flip the car over, Arturo and Echo might
really
be stuck here.

One of the grizzlies behind them rose up and put its forepaws on the trunk of the Wendigo, making the whole car rock back.

“Fuck!” Echo said, sounding genuinely alarmed for the first time.

“Cover your ears,” Arturo said. Echo just looked at him, frowning. “Suit yourself,” Arturo said, and slammed his hand down on the Wendigo’s horn.

The roar was loud, vast, bowel-churning, and Arturo squeezed his eyes to slits and gritted his teeth. Echo had her palms pressed flat to her ears.

The effect on the bears was instantaneous. Most bolted away from the Wendigo, and the grizzly leaning on the trunk staggered back. Arturo would have gunned the engine . . . but the polar bear wasn’t acting scared. The polar bear was acting
pissed
, and it charged toward the Wendigo, mouth open in a roar Arturo couldn’t hear over the Wendigo’s horn.

Before the bear quite reached the Wendigo, it changed into an enormously fat, naked albino man. All the bears around them began changing too, transformations so abrupt it was a bit like watching balloons pop, larger volumes suddenly reduced to human proportions.

“This is fucked up!” Echo shouted, hands still held to her ears. The albino man ran and flung himself onto the hood of the Wendigo, face twisted in a snarl, and began pounding on the windshield.

Arturo stopped pressing the horn. It was good for scaring away animals and the occasional not-quite-animal, but it wasn’t much good on bears in human form—they might be crazy, but they were smart enough to know the noise was coming from a car, and not some gargantuan apex predator. Arturo hit the gas, and the Wendigo shot backward, sending the polar man sliding off the hood, but Arturo couldn’t continue his high-speed reverse, because a boulder loomed up in the rearview mirror. He hit the brakes, and the Wendigo lurched to a stop. The now-human bears approached the Wendigo from the front, and some of them stopped to pick up chunks of rock from the ground.

“I doubt I can shoot them all,” Echo said. “Even if they were grouped up nicely, I’ve only got two shells in this gun.”

Arturo sighed. “I’d rather keep the murderin’ to a minimum if that’s okay with you. I’ve got one more thing I can try. Get the sunglasses out of the glove compartment.”

“What are you talking about? The glove compartment is full of fortune cookie—”

“Just look, would you?” The bears were getting closer, and while the Wendigo was tough, enough guys bashing the glass with rocks would get in eventually. And then Arturo and Echo would die. Or, worse, they
wouldn’t
die, and would, instead, be changed.

Echo dug into the fortunes in the glove compartment and came out with two pairs of oversized aviator sunglasses.

“Give me a pair, and put yours on,” Arturo said, and added “Trust me,” when she hesitated. She handed him the sunglasses, and donned her own.

Once he put them on, the sunglasses blocked Arturo’s vision almost completely—they were much darker than ordinary sunglasses. The Wendigo owner’s manual was only intermittently available, but it was very clear about the necessity of protective eyewear before turning on the high beams. Arturo had only used the bright headlights a couple of times in all the years he’d been driving the Wendigo, but if this wasn’t an emergency, he didn’t know what was.

“Let there be headlights.” He pulled the lever by the steering wheel.

Even through the heavily smoked glasses, the light was bright, twin expanding cones of intense brightness that threw the bear-people before them into stark relief. They didn’t try to shield their eyes, though—they just stopped moving, and stared.

“So pretty,” Echo murmured, and started to reach up to take off her sunglasses.

Without thinking, Arturo grabbed her wrist. “No,” he said. “That light is like heroin or something, okay? Once you start looking, it’s hard to stop.”

“It’s the light of a better world, isn’t it,” Echo said, but when he let go of her hand, she didn’t try to take her glasses off. “What Ismael’s been looking for.”

Arturo sighed. “No, it’s like an imitation of that light, okay? The same way the horn sounds like the roar of a big scary animal, but
isn’t
. This light, it’s just a trick.” Arturo wasn’t certain of that, actually, but even if the light pouring forth from his high beams was somehow imported from the supposed heaven so many briarpatch pilgrims were searching for, it wouldn’t do them any good. The high beams couldn’t stay on forever, and if they could, the pilgrims would just starve to death while basking in the light.

“Those bears might not stay subdued for long. The light has funny effects on them, maybe because they’re crazy, I don’t know, but it’s like red kryptonite to Superman, you never know how they’ll react. Sometimes they just sit and enjoy it, and other times they try to kill each other, like the light is a limited resource and they’re afraid the other bears will eat it all up.” He nosed the Wendigo forward a bit, to put some space between them and the boulder behind. The bears were swaying and weeping and laughing not far from the Wendigo’s front end, but if he could rock the car back and forth in a seven- or nine-point turn, he should be able to get a gap big enough to drive through.

“Pretty pretty pretty,” Echo murmured. Arturo backed, filled, backed, filled; and then the headlights flickered briefly. Echo let out a low moan at the instant of darkness before the lights returned.

Arturo glanced at the dash, and the glowing red “low battery” light was on. Shit shit shit. He’d never left the brights on for this long, and if the battery died, they were well and truly screwed, because they couldn’t get a jump out here, and Triple A didn’t service the briarpatch.

He finally got the Wendigo turned so there was no one directly in front, though the bears outside the cone of the lights began shaking and thrashing and keening horribly in withdrawal. The brights flickered again, and Arturo shut them off and put the Wendigo in drive, pulling his sunglasses low on his nose so he could see.

The fat albino man lurched to the front of the car and screamed “Bring back the light! Bring it back!” He pounded on the hood with his fists.

Arturo froze. If he turned the brights back on, the man would just stand there, and Arturo would have to spend more time—time the battery probably didn’t have—to back up and get around him.

Then Echo stomped on his foot with her own, driving his foot down on the accelerator, and the Wendigo’s engine roared. The car shot forward, the fat albino rolling up onto the hood and then bouncing off, hard, when Arturo jerked the wheel around. Echo kept pressing on his foot with hers and the Wendigo’s speedometer ratcheted up and up, putting distance between them and the bears. A glance at the rearview mirror showed them pursuing, changing into bears again, but they couldn’t catch the Wendigo.

Finally Echo took her foot away, and Arturo was able to ease up on the speed a little. “I did
not
like the way that light made me feel.”

“You seemed to like it a lot.” Arturo felt almost friendly toward her, flush with the giddiness of survival, riding high on the Wendigo’s power.

“I liked it the way I like high doses of painkillers, and I
disliked
it for the same reason. I don’t like losing control.”

“I guess you won’t be joinin’ Ismael in his search for the better world, then,” Arturo said.

“Hell, no. Though I can see why he wants it. He just wants to hide from the mean old world that hurt him so bad, boo-fucking-hoo. Whereas me, I want to hurt the world
back
.”

BOOK: Briarpatch by Tim Pratt
10.23Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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