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Authors: Tim Pratt

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Briarpatch by Tim Pratt (4 page)

BOOK: Briarpatch by Tim Pratt
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“Maybe I’m not exactly a ghost. But I’m a spirit with no body, so it’s close enough. And you’re my haunted house—seems I can’t stray too far from you. As long as you do what I want, and go where I tell you, we’ll get along fine.”

“I can’t go anywhere,” Orville said, regretfully, because this was really a very pretty girl, even if she did think she was dead, and he didn’t want to disappoint her. “I think my legs are all messed up.”

“That’s okay. There’s a wheelchair here, and we’re going to put you in it before those doctors come back.”

“I don’t think I should move. I’m hurt bad.”

Her face appeared above him again. “Speaking as a dead woman, apparently cursed to haunt a botched suicide named Troll, I don’t have much sympathy for you. I’ve got people to see and answers to get. Upsie-daisy. Into the wheelchair.”

Orville didn’t quite understand what happened then. He didn’t exactly feel her touch him, but somehow he was rising, as if lifted by a strong wind, IVs tugged from his arms, a white fog filling his vision and receding, and soon he was sitting upright, and there was a flash of pain coming up from his legs, like being stung by a bee, and it seemed a harbinger of worse pain to come. The dead woman—what was her name?—was behind him, and the wheelchair was moving forward, through the door, into a white corridor.

Orville thought he should be worried, but the drugs wouldn’t let him. And anyway, how likely was it that any of this was even happening? He was probably just in a coma, dreaming, or even drowning to death in the bay, imagining all this. “Where are we going?” he asked.

“Into the briarpatch,” she said, and Orville couldn’t tell if he heard anticipation or fear in her voice.

Arturo Has a Sweet Ride

1

Darrin stepped off the bus after his long trip back across the bay. During the ride he’d tried to wrap his head around what he’d seen, and he’d passed beyond disbelief into a kind of profound numbness. Bridget was dead. She’d jumped from the bridge. That chapter of his life was now completely closed. He trudged from the bus stop down by the high school on Park Boulevard toward his street, across from the 24-hour grocery store—Bridget had always called it the “grab and stab” or the “loot and shoot” because it seemed like the kind of place that probably got robbed a lot—and up the steep hill, past stucco apartment buildings with white-painted wrought iron gates.

He wondered when he’d see Echo next, what he’d say to her when he did. They had no plans, but she often dropped by unexpectedly. She would hold him, at least, and would offer whatever other comforts he was willing to accept. She didn’t like hearing about Bridget, anymore than any lover relished tales of her predecessor, but Echo understood the impact Bridget had made on Darrin’s life. She would try to help him get
past
this grief though—she wasn’t one for brooding. Those were the things Darrin liked about her: her spontaneity, her honesty, the remarkably short distance that existed between her thoughts and her actions. Those qualities certainly made sex with her wonderful—athletic and ecstatic, anyway, if seldom exactly intimate—but it could make more delicate emotional matters difficult to navigate.

Darrin paused by a car parked a block down from his building. It was painted a bone-coloured off-white, a battered-looking, four-door landshark of a sedan, probably from the ’70s, though the chrome grille that seemed to silently snarl and the pop-eyed oversized headlights were more like something from the ’50s. The car’s back seat was filled with paper, heaped from floorboards nearly to the ceiling, and the passenger seat was similarly piled, papers spilling onto the wide dashboard and encroaching onto the driver’s side a bit. Darrin frowned, peering inside. He’d never seen anything like this—was it some kind of gypsy recycling wagon? There were takeout restaurant menus, old tax forms, handwritten letters, torn envelopes, catalogues, advertising circulars, bills, bank statements, cancelled cheques, coffee-stained contracts, and all other manner of paper paraphernalia. There must have been hundreds of thousands of sheets, and hundreds of pounds of paper, and when Darrin stepped back to look, he saw the car was riding low on its axles, fenders weighted halfway down the tires. He walked around the vehicle, its strangeness temporarily distracting him from his more serious concerns. He thumped the trunk, wondering if it was similarly stuffed, and if the car’s owner had some sort of deeply arcane filing system, or if it was, as seemed more likely, simply the vehicle of an obsessive crap-hoarder.

Then he noticed the car’s name. There was the familiar winged Chrysler logo in the middle of the trunk, and on the far left, in raised silver letters, the name of the model: “Wendigo.”

A Chrysler Wendigo? Darrin had never heard of such a thing, but then, he wasn’t a car fanatic. Nicholas would know—probably this was some briefly-made and quickly-discontinued model with a tendency to explode in collisions or flip over in high winds. But wasn’t “Wendigo” the name of some kind of monster? Something like a Bigfoot, maybe, or . . . hadn’t Bridget made him sit through some horror movie set in Canada called
Wendigo
, with a monster made of sticks and trick photography?

He unzipped his bag and removed his camera, turning it on and glancing down at the screen to make sure it was working. This car was practically a piece of folk art, and he wanted to document it, get a shot of the name and some of the interior—you wouldn’t be able to read the paper in the photos, so it wasn’t really an invasion of privacy, he thought. He sighted through the viewfinder and pressed the button.

“You like my car there, buddy?” The voice was cheerful and touched slightly with a Minnesotan accent, and when Darrin looked up he saw a rotund man of middle age, with a deeply receding hairline, a compensatory walrus moustache, and a reddish nose. He wore an untucked shirt with a loud pattern that looked like it had been generated by a computer program, faded corduroy pants, and sandals held together with duct tape.

“Ah, sorry,” Darrin said. “I just, uh, wanted to take a picture of the name, I’ve never heard of a Wendigo before.”

The man slapped the hood of the car with an open palm and said “Yeah, she’s an import.”

Darrin started to respond—
If it’s a Chrysler, how can it be an import
?—but the man was walking toward him, hand extended, saying “Name’s Arturo Glassini, pleased to meetcha, and you are?”

Darrin shook with his non-camera-wielding hand and said “Darrin, Darrin Phare.” Arturo’s handshake was firm and dry.

“You live up in the big ugly Georgian, right?” Arturo said, and Darrin was startled into a laugh, but Arturo was right, the house was ugly, a blocky Georgian house, complete with fake pillars, rendered in shades of tan stucco. “Big place for one guy, you got a family?”

Darrin was suddenly uncomfortable with the thought of revealing the specifics of his life to a total stranger, and one with a car that bespoke a troubled mind besides, but the answer seemed safe enough: “It’s not that big, the house is broken up into four apartments, I just rent.”

“Ahhh,” Arturo said. “I seen you leaving there some mornings.” Darrin kept expecting Arturo to smell funny—he looked like he should—but he didn’t, except faintly of paper. “Hey, listen, my Wendigo is a sweet ride, I see you taking the bus sometimes, so if you ever need a lift somewhere, let me know. I got nothin’ but time.”

The offer struck Darrin as genuinely kind, rather than creepy, and he said, “Thanks, that’s nice, I really appreciate it.” He wondered how Arturo could expect to give anyone a ride, at least without removing several reams of loose paper from his passenger seat, but he didn’t say anything. Arturo was obviously eccentric, and probably harmless. He didn’t reek of suppressed violent crazy, as some of Darrin’s fellow travelers on mass transit occasionally did. Darrin considered himself a pretty good judge of character anyway, and using a camera so much these past months had helped make him more observant.

“You live around here?” Darrin asked.

“Oh, yeah, right by here,” Arturo said, motioning vaguely. He raised his hands and took a step back, toward the middle of the street. “Don’t let me stop you from takin’ your snapshots.”

Darrin took a couple of quick shots of the logo and the car’s name, mostly to satisfy Arturo. “Well,” he said. “I’ll see you around.”

“Yup,” Arturo said. “And that’s somethin’ to look forward to in this cold old world.” He waved as Darrin walked away.

2

Darrin went up the steps to the house, leaning his shoulder against the door to push it open, because the wood always swelled and stuck during the rainy season. He clumped up the narrow stairs to his apartment on the second floor of the big old house. Once upon a time it had been a single-family residence, but some decades ago it had been carved up into apartments, walls erected, rooms partitioned to create space for necessities, and as a result he had a narrow kitchen—far too much of which was taken up by a cranky old water heater—and an enormous bathroom with a shiny black-and-white tiled floor and a tub big enough for two.

Darrin hesitated in the entryway to his office, where his computer sat humming, its enormous flat screen a leftover from his more prosperous days, its hardware once top-of-the-line but now growing ever more obsolete. Part of him wanted to plug in the digital camera and look at that photo of Bridget, the last picture anyone would ever take of her while she was alive. Another part of him wanted to put off the morbid enterprise for as long as possible. He went into the kitchen and sighed at the mess of tea bags, spilled sugar, dollops of honey, and splashes of cream on the counter. Echo had stopped by, apparently, and as always she’d left a little disaster behind. He tidied up the wreckage of her tea, and then noticed the red light flashing on the phone hanging on the wall by the refrigerator. He pressed the button and winced as Nicholas’s booming voice emerged: “Hey, fucker, did you forget we were supposed to have lunch today?” His tone was jovial, hiding irritation. “You missed out, the waitress was hot. She had that kinda geeky chunky-glasses-wearing thing you like going on. Give me a call, tell me you didn’t get crushed under a train or something, let me know how you’re going to make it up to me. Hope you’re all right.”

Darrin sighed. Another person to tell about Bridget, another person to explain things to, and Nicholas would insist on cheering him up— incapable of letting misery and grief run their courses, he was all about
getting back to normal
, and though he was well-intentioned, Darrin didn’t look forward to coping with his sort of therapy.

Darrin was hungry, having missed lunch, so he put together a sandwich and took it back to his desk. No point putting this off—he’d just obsess about it until he looked. He plugged the cable into his camera and waited while the computer imported the latest bunch of photos, about a hundred taken in the past two days. Darrin didn’t do much these days
but
walk around and take photos—unless he was hanging out with Echo, who wanted sex more often than he did, and dragged him to bars, and routinely beat him at video games—and as the thumbnail images flickered by during the import process they provided a sort of map of his recent days: there was the long stairway on the way to the lake, flanked by chipped cherub statues , and the crap-covered benches of the bird sanctuary on the far side, and the faded whimsy of the giant metal dandelion sculptures, and the gate of Children’s Fairyland, the little fairy-tale theme park, and the marquee of the Grand Lake Theater with its liberal protest signage alongside the names of the latest Oscar-courting melodrama movies, and ranked headstones at the cemetery down past Piedmont Avenue, and the remarkable intersection of half a dozen overpasses and pedestrian walkways criss-crossing above the freeway, whimsical and brute-concrete-functional all at once, and shots of the bay and the Marin headlands. And finally Bridget, in the red coat Darrin had bought for her, leaning against the railing on the Golden Gate Bridge just moments before she jumped, just a flicker across his screen before the computer started downloading the photos of the Wendigo.

Darrin launched his photo software and opened the photo of Bridget. It was a good picture, clear, and he could adjust the colours to make them less saturated, if he could stand to look at her for that long. He leaned forward, elbows on the desk, bringing his face close enough to the screen that she almost dissolved into individual pixels, and there it was, inevitably: he started to cry, tears welling in his eyes, blurring his vision, and he thumped the desk with his fist and sat back in his chair, wiping his cheeks. God damn it, why had she done this? What had driven her to kill herself, how could things be so bad, why hadn’t she talked to him? The way Bridget had left him, without a word, without warning, was the great gaping mystery at the centre of his life, the event that had undermined his foundations, and it seemed all his troubles had flowed from that—after she left he lost his job, setting him utterly adrift, with only photography and, more recently Echo, providing distraction. And now Bridget was dead. “She was crazy,” he said aloud, but it didn’t have the ring of the plausible, not really, though it was as good an explanation as any, and better than no explanation at all. “Only crazy people kill themselves for no good reason.” But maybe she’d had a reason. Maybe she’d had a brain tumour, had left to spare him the pain of watching her get sick, and had decided to kill herself to stave off a slow decline. It was a nice fantasy, in a way—it was a fantasy built on the premise that she loved him—but it didn’t really fit the available facts. After all, she’d left him
for
someone, for that man who’d beaten up Nicholas outside the strip club—what was his name?

And then Darrin saw something, some
one
, in the photo. There were lots of people in the background, tourists mostly, but there was a familiar figure, half-eclipsed by Bridget’s body, but the face was visible over her shoulder, and Darrin jabbed at the keyboard and zoomed in on the man.

Long, lank black hair. Sallow skin. Shadowed eyes and a narrow face, prominent cheekbones, a long nose. It was the man Nicholas had seen Bridget with, the man they’d confronted on the street, the man who’d escaped into an alley that (apparently) didn’t even exist.

BOOK: Briarpatch by Tim Pratt
8.13Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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