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Authors: Tim Pratt

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Briarpatch by Tim Pratt (7 page)

BOOK: Briarpatch by Tim Pratt
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Orville felt absurdly touched. When had anyone ever cared about the possibility that he might be lost before? “No, I’m okay, it’s okay.”

“What
was
that?”

Orville thought about trying to explain what he’d seen. He’d never been very good with words, descriptions, making himself understood, so he just shook his head and said, “Something terrible. I only got a glimpse , silver and dark, but it was destroying everything .” That was wrong, he knew—it implied there had been a
thing
doing the destroying, when the process of destruction
was
the thing, but before he could try to clarify, Bridget was talking again, almost shouting.

“You have to run faster when shit like that happens, Orville, you can’t hang around and look behind you and get a peek, you could
die
. The briarpatch is a dangerous place, you don’t even know. If you’d died, I might be stuck haunting this fucking hallway forever. Who knows where your spirit or soul or animus or whatever would go, maybe you already got your ticket to a new golden world and you’ll go there when you die, but I’d be stuck with your rotting corpse I bet, here in the ass end of the middle of nowhere, deep in the ugliest brambles of the briarpatch.”

Orville didn’t even feel disappointment, exactly, though he was a little hurt. Why would a pretty girl, even a dead one, care about him for anything other than pragmatic purposes? “I’m sorry you’re stuck haunting me. I’m sorry I didn’t die when I jumped.”

“Yeah.” Bridget turned her back. “Maybe it would’ve been better for both of us if you had. I’m sure you had good reasons to try to kill yourself. I mean . . . you must have let
everything
go, divorced yourself from all worldly things, if you saw the light.”

“You make it sound Zen. It wasn’t Zen. It was . . . just being tired. Realizing I didn’t have anything to live for, and deciding I was tired of the hassle. But you were a suicide, too. I guess you understand.”

Bridget laughed harshly. “I didn’t hate my life. I just wanted my life to be better, to be extraordinary, wonderful beyond wonderful. And Ismael told me I could have that—if I left all this behind, gave up everything in my life, and finally gave up my body, I could go to a better place.”

“Sounds like a cult. Like those Heaven’s Gate people who committed suicide, and thought they’d fly away on a spaceship in a comet.”

Bridget sniffed. “Maybe the comet did take them away, the parts of them that transcended their bodies, anyway, but probably not. Most cults are just hobbies for the power-hungry and deluded. Shit, suicide isn’t like a magical doorway to the land of milk and honey; you have to
work
for it. Suicide is the last step, it shows willingness to leave the most elemental part of yourself behind, it’s like turning a knob and opening a door—but first you have to open up the ten fucking thousand locks on the door, the bolts and chains and padlocks and crossbars. People who think just offing themselves will let them go to planet Xanadu or some other paradise are just lazy, it’s cargo cultism, it’s mistaking a part for the whole.”

“So
your
cult leader knows better, huh?” Orville said, surprised at the contempt in his voice. Bridget had hurt his feelings, which made it easier to be mean to her, even if she had taken him to get his legs fixed. Besides, focusing on his annoyance with her kept him from thinking about the impossible situation he was in, the dark and viscera-stained hallway where they stood. “He’s
really
got the keys to enlightenment.”

“I’m not sure it counts as a cult when I was the only member. Though I think he might have had cults before, or at least groups of like-minded people—he talked, sometimes, about trying to mass-produce transcendence, giving up the one-on-one mentor thing in favour of teaching groups, trying to save more people all at once. Ismael convinced you, too, Orville, and a lot faster than he did me. Anyway, you saw the light.
That’s
the place I was trying to reach. But I must have done it wrong, or Ismael didn’t tell me everything I needed to know. I didn’t open all the locks on the door, I guess. But you, without even trying, you saw the light. You’re like some kind of idiot savant of transcendence.”

“Take me out of here,” Orville said coldly. “If you have to haunt me, at least haunt me back in my own world.”

Bridget shrugged. “You’re a briarpatch boy now, Orville. The borders of your world just got a lot more permeable. Once you’ve seen the light, it’s hard to go back to blindness. Ismael taught me to see, a little, but it’s so much clearer since I left my body behind. I can see all the bridges and corridors and stairways. I saw you looking around back there, in Briarpatch Memorial, you can see the passages now, too, at least a little. It’s going to get harder and harder for you to tell where your world ends and the briarpatch begins. You’ve only been here once, and you can already see the pathways that lead from one broken fragment of a world to another. Ismael said sometimes trauma can do that—knock the doors of perception right off their hinges. Maybe that’s why you can see me. That’s lucky. It would be even worse haunting someone who couldn’t even hear me talk—not that you’d be my first choice for an eternal companion. But, sure, I’ll guide you back. Want to go to the hospital? I mean the normal one?”

Orville shuddered. How would he explain, how would he talk to the doctors? But they hadn’t found identification on him, and if he didn’t go back to the hospital, maybe they’d never discover his identity. Even if they did find him, his body was the perfect alibi—how could he be the broken man who’d escaped from the hospital, when his legs worked fine? “No,” he said. “I want to go home.”

“Where’s home?”

“North Oakland. Near the MacArthur BART station.”

“Nice,” Bridget said. “Crackhead adjacent.”

“Just how long do you intend to haunt me?” Orville said.

Bridget frowned. “Well, that’s the question. Like I said, I didn’t get an instruction sheet. Maybe we’re stuck together until you die, or maybe I’ll have to hang around forever.” She shuddered. “I don’t want to think about it. I’m a big believer in action over contemplation—of course, that’s kind of what got me
into
this mess—but I’m hoping I’m like a standard ghost, the kinds you hear stories about, either a revenant or a returner. Either I’m here to take revenge for wrongs done to me, or I’m here to take care of some unfinished business. Whichever, I know where I need to go.”

“Where’s that?”

“To see Ismael Plenty, my ‘cult leader.’ He’s going to love you, Orville. You saw the light, but you didn’t die. That makes you some kind of rarity, and Ismael loves rarities. He’s been alive so long he almost never encounters anything rare anymore.” She started down the hallway, stepping around dark puddles, beckoning Orville to follow. “And after he’s done marvelling at you, he’s going to fix
me
. If we could fish a whole body out of the timestream for you, there must be a way to get me back to life.”

Orville wasn’t so sure. The existence of one impossible thing hardly proved the existence of every
other
impossible thing. If you saw a unicorn, it wouldn’t mean there were also giants, hydra, pegasi, and leprechauns. And dead wasn’t the same as hurt. But if trying to save herself kept her from going crazy, he supposed it was all to the good. Having something to work toward probably made her life a lot easier. Orville had never had any purpose at all, and look where that had gotten him.

“Come on, Mr. Troll. I don’t like this relationship any better than you do. Let’s get you home, and into some outfit that covers up your ass, and then we’ll visit Ismael, and see if you and me can get out of each other’s hair forever.”

This was, Orville thought, at least more interesting than working the phone banks, if also more frightening. He sneezed again, and they walked back into the world he knew.

Bridget Sees the Light

1

Before she was dead:

“But what about love?” Bridget reclined on a pile of mismatched throw pillows in Ismael’s living room, looking across at him through a cloud of fragrant smoke from the hookah.

Ismael scratched at a patch of dry skin by his ankle. He took a puff on the pipe, held the smoke, released, and said “What about it?”

Bridget wore a velvet cloak she’d unearthed from some long-forgotten trunk in Ismael’s “legacy room.” She was always cold, especially now that she’d been to the briarpatch a few times and was subject to the cold drafts of other worlds, which blew through this room in cross-dimensional gusts. Those liminal winds didn’t stir the smoke, but both Ismael and Bridget could feel them. They didn’t bother Ismael; he’d frozen in the snow during Napoleon’s march to Russia. A little draft was nothing.

“Have you ever been in love?” Bridget asked.

“Literally scores of times. And for a long time, yes, I thought love was a gateway to a better world. Then, when I gave up on love, I tried music, and that was closer, and when I gave up on that, I tried opium.” He took another hit—just marijuana, not opium, never again. “I lost
years
to opium, convinced myself it would set my spirit free as my body wasted away. But, as you see, I’m still here, body and soul bruised but intact.”

“I’m not talking about addiction,” Bridget said. “I’m talking about love. I love Darrin. I’m not sure all this . . . the things you’ve shown me . . . are worth the cost of giving him up.”

“If you love Darrin, why do you tell him so many lies?” Ismael wondered why he bothered trying to make Bridget miserable. She was remarkably resistant to his gravity-well of despair, his contagious emotional state—not as resistant as that odd girl named Echo he’d met a while back, but still very much her own woman. More importantly, Bridget wasn’t following the path of despair to transcendence—she was driven by something else, a thirst for meaning, a need for her existence to
matter
. Ismael didn’t need to drag her down, but needling people was a practice honed to habit over the centuries.

“Darrin wouldn’t understand,” Bridget said resignedly. “He’s . . . happy, or at least content. He’s satisfied with his job, his house, me.”

“Show me a contented man, and I’ll show you a fool or a liar.” Ismael wanted to steer the discussion away from Darrin. He had high hopes for Bridget’s spiritual development—she was a wonderful prospect for transition—but she was also a way for him to reach Darrin, and manipulate him. Helping others free themselves from the misery of life was all well and good, but in Darrin Ismael saw a possibility to finally free
himself
. Better if Bridget didn’t know that, though. She might get . . . protective about her lover.

Bridget shrugged. “Darrin knows I’m not happy, but he doesn’t know how deep that goes. He thinks I need to find a job I like, or something instead of just temping. I wish I could be more like him, get excited about the prospect of buying a house, having babies, all that, but it just seems so fucking
ordinary
. I want to be more content, more—”

“Idiotically sheep-like? Bridget, never wish for that. You’re an idealist, and I can tell you, for certain, that ideal things exist. You’re on your way to a better world. Loving Darrin just holds you back. You must learn to let these unimportant desires go.”

“I hate it when you get all Zen.”

Ismael sighed. “I’m not Zen. I didn’t say you should cultivate a lack of desire. I desire things fiercely. Specifically: Oblivion, or eternal bliss. I want those more than
you’ve
ever wanted anything, and I’ve been wanting them since before your great-grandparents were born. I’m just saying you should want the right things. I don’t want steaming piles of dog shit, or rotten meat, or a knife in the eye, and those are the only things this world can offer: rot and decay and pain, the cheap and the useless, the hallucinated and the fake. You have to
want
to transcend this lesser world, Bridget, more than you’ve ever wanted anything, and throw away all your distractions. The only way to get there is by casting all your baggage aside.”

“Darrin isn’t baggage, he’s—”

“He’s a nice guy,” Ismael said. “Yes. I know. I believe you. So marry him, have his children. Suffer through his mid-life crisis, his inevitable affairs. Have children who will love, despise, and forget you, in that order. Grow old with him. Go on. Be like all the rest for your threescore and ten, eat cheeseburgers and race mountain bikes, take cruises and see museums, and when you’re done, die and rot in the ground or burn to ash and be finished. Be eaten by worms and the dark.” He gestured toward the door. “If you think that’s better than living forever in a place of pure joy, go.”

“You know, fuck this, Ismael.” Bridget threw her pipe down. “I don’t think I even believe in your better world. Yeah, you’ve shown me crazy shit, but I haven’t seen any proof of this magical la-la pie-in-the-sky wonderland you’re always going on about. I think you’re old and desperate and crazy, and eager to get out of your skin. You believe in this ‘better world’ the way people believe in God, or salvation, it’s something you need to get through the day. That’s fine, but I’m not some idiot looking for escape from a shitty job, or to be led around by the nose by my own personal guru. I just want
more
out of life, and I don’t mean more of your bullshit!”

“Come, then,” Ismael said, rising.

She stared up at him, half-furious, half-curious. “Come where?”

“Into the briarpatch. If you don’t believe in the better world, I’ll show you.”

“I thought the whole point was that you couldn’t get to the land of light and honey by walking, couldn’t reach it in your skin?”

He shrugged. “I have never found such a direct path, though one may exist, in the vastness of the briarpatch, somewhere. But you don’t have to see a bear to know there’s a bear nearby—you can look at the footprints, the bark stripped from trees, the dung, the mauled bodies. I can show you the proof of a better world, if not the better world itself.”

Slowly, Bridget stood up. Ismael watched the emotions move across her face: doubt, frustration, hope, fear. He’d only taken her into the briarpatch a few times, and she still didn’t really understand it—she thought it was shortcuts and novelties, and the vast sprawling strangeness of it all hadn’t penetrated fully. Well, this time they were going deep, and she would be made to understand. Maybe that would straighten out her priorities.

BOOK: Briarpatch by Tim Pratt
5.97Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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