Cascade Wonderland

May 30, 2017

It's after Memorial Day, thus it is summer (by the traditions of my people, and in this hemisphere, anyway), so here's a summer road trip story! With alternate dimensions. It's set in the world of my novel Briarpatch, but no prior knowledge of said novel is necessary to enjoy. So, enjoy! As always, you can read in text below or download various happy formats. Thanks as always for the support!


About halfway between San Francisco and Oregon—halfway between work and yesterday and love and tomorrow—Amir got lost.

He’d started driving early, to avoid the snarl of rush hour around the city, setting out before sunrise. By the time the weekday commuters in the Bay Area started to clog the freeways in earnest, he was already two hours north — just in time to hit morning traffic around Sacramento. Oh well. But he had podcasts to listen to, and the radio, and his secondhand SUV was a smooth and pleasant ride, and most of all, he had Kami to look forward to. Anticipation about seeing her, about being with her after the separation of grad school, far outweighed any frustration about the traffic. It was going to be a long day of driving, but he’d finish it in her bed—in what would be their bed.

Once he got past Sacramento, the roads were clear, and he settled in for another eight hours and five hundred miles. The landscape around I-5 in northern California was intermittently pretty but mostly monotonous, the fields and trees and distant hills blurring into vague watercolors around him. He was listening to a podcast about the Amazon river basin, where he’d done some field work on wildlife ecology and biodiversity, but the host’s voice was a low drone, and eventually highway hypnosis set in. His cruise control was doing most of the work, with only minute adjustments of the wheel necessary to follow the slow freeway curves, so his conscious mind drifted into the future: he had the summer to play with Kami and settle into a new city, and his postdoc position at Reed College starting in the fall. There would be food trucks and whiskey bars and visits to snow-capped mountains and local beers and sex, finally, sex more often than the occasional long weekend when he or Kami could scrounge enough time for a road trip or money for a plane ticket—

He squinted. Wait. Something was wrong. The sun had been hovering off on his right, gradually rising, but now he was looking into the brightness. He’d done this drive a dozen times over the past three years, and though the freeway veered a bit here and there to accommodate the vagaries of the landscape, it never pointed him straight east. The clock on the dash read 10:17 a.m., which also seemed wrong, because the sun was too low on the horizon, like it had just risen.

For that matter, the horizon was wrong: he should have been near the Oregon border, on the indifferently maintained stretch of I-5 called the “Cascade Wonderland Highway,” passing little towns like Weed and Yreka, the landscape around him all low hills dotted with scrub brush and forlorn housing developments, the only actual wonder in sight the snowy peak of Mt. Shasta off in the distance.

Instead, he was cruising on new smooth blacktop—so new that lines hadn’t even been painted on it yet—with table-flat desert on either side, dotted with the occasional boulder, and no signs of life at all. Amir slowed down, pulling off to the shoulder, and picked up his phone. He hadn’t bothered looking up directions, since he knew the route (and most of that route was “drive on a single highway for ten hours” anyway), but he’d clearly made some mistake. Taken a wrong turn, somehow, when he was zoned out, maybe eased down an exit and off on some weird tangent. Maybe a long way off. This desert seemed more southern California than northern, but that was ridiculous. With all the drought years they’d had lately, who knows? Maybe this had been lusher land once upon a time.

He silenced the podcast and opened his phone’s map. At that point, he was just annoyed with himself, not yet frightened. There was no cell service, which didn’t surprise him in a place this remote, but the GPS was hopeless too: his map was just blank gray nothing. He sat, frowning, then restarted his phone, staring out at the empty spaces around him while the device turned off and woke itself back up. No cars passed by. There was no sign of human habitation at all, not even fences or telephone wires. If not for the blacktop, he could have been in the wilderness.

His phone woke up, but still offered no help. He put it down on the passenger seat and drummed his fingers on the steering wheel. He was running low on gas—he usually gassed up right over the Oregon border, where the attendants filled the tank for you—but he didn’t think it would be a huge problem. He couldn’t have driven that far on mindless autopilot, so the smart move would be to turn around and head back the way he’d come, hoping to find the interstate quickly. At least then the sun would be out of his eyes. He looked up and down the empty, straight road, and did a three-point turn and headed west. He fiddled with the radio, got nothing but static, and shut it off.

The road ran so straight and level that he saw the wreck from miles away, first as little more than a blur of smoke. As he drew closer, he couldn’t imagine how he’d missed it the first time—he must have been so distracted by the future he’d ignored the present entirely. He slowed as he approached the wreck, trying to make sense of the twisted, blackened metal. It looked at first like a skeletal model of a dinosaur frozen in its death throes, then more like a pile of two dozen burned metal grocery carts, and then, for an instant when the smoke eddied in a breeze, like a flying saucer half-buried in the sand at a tilted angle. All various flavors of impossible, but when he got up alongside, it was just the burned-out hulk of an old farm truck, still smoking.

Amir was about to accelerate past when the woman lurched into the road. She emerged from the smoke, lanky and barefoot, hair a wild tangle, sundress torn and soot-smeared. She was limping and looked disoriented, and Amir braked hard and instinctively went to call 911 before remembering his phone was worthless. The woman saw his car and began to loop toward him, coming around toward the driver’s side. He put the SUV in park and started to open the door—

Another car came barreling over the desert from the north, its route perpendicular to the blacktop, its arrival heralded by great clouds of rising dust. The car didn’t move elegantly—it was some immense old American sedan, and it wallowed—but it moved fast, and Amir stared in horror, prepared to be t-boned and crippled if not killed. The car jerked to a hard stop with its chromed grin of a grille and bulbous headlights inches from Amir’s left fender, effectively cutting off the injured woman’s approach... almost as if the new car had tried to block her access to his door deliberately.

Amir wasn’t prone to road rage—he had the kind of temperament that let him remain polite even when living in a tent for months in the jungle with only other biologists for company—but he swore and made a rude gesture at the thirty-something white guy sitting behind the other car’s big old steering wheel. The car itself was the color of yellowed old bone, its body and windshield dusty, and the driver must have been some kind of hoarder, because the passenger seat and back seat and most of the dash were piled high with bits of paper, everything from newsprint to yellow legal sheets to fancy stationary to take-out menus. This guy must have kept every piece of mail he’d ever received, with a liberal definition of “mail.”

The woman had stumbled away when the ugly car came screeching up, but now she lurched toward them again, hands held up in entreaty. The man in the other car stared at her for a moment, then fumbled at his glove compartment, extracted and donned a pair of drugstore reading glasses, and peered at her again. Then he slammed the heel of his hand down on the center of his steering wheel.

Amir expected to hear a horn... but it wasn’t a horn. It was an animal roar, a brutal harmonic of hate, rage, and aggression that made the windows in the SUV and the fillings in his teeth rattle. Not the roar of a tiger, or a bear, or a gorilla; more like he imagined the roar of a T-Rex, or a giant monster risen from oceanic depths to devastate humanity, or the battle cry of a demon warrior. He whimpered and slammed his hands against his ears to shut out the deafening assault—but his eyes were open when the woman flinched away... and changed.

She didn’t look like a woman anymore. She was half again as large, for one thing, broader and taller, and covered in undulating spines, like a puffer-fish mermaid. Her face was a deep-sea horror of overlapping fangs, and her garments were silvery and shredded. Her arms were too long, and boneless, and flailing. The creature stumbled away from the onslaught of sound, then ran away, off into the desert, more rapidly than Amir would have believed possible, vanishing from sight.

The roar stopped, though Amir’s head rang, and he touched his ears, half-expecting his fingertips to come away wet with blood, though they didn’t.

The newcomer got out of his car, walked around the rear, and came up to Amir’s window. He rapped on the glass with his knuckles.

After a moment’s blank staring, Amir rolled it down.

“Hi,” the man said. “Sorry about the noise. I’m Darrin. It’s really not safe to pick up strangers in this part of the briarpatch.”

Amir didn’t know how to answer that. He considered just nodding and then driving away, but the burned-out truck caught his eye. It didn’t look like a truck anymore. It was some kind of vessel, made of charred metal, driven half into the ground, as if it had fallen from a great height, but it wasn’t even a classic UFO flying saucer: it was more spherical and spiked, like the head of a morningstar mace from a game of Dungeons and Dragons.

Suddenly the car was claustrophobic and stifling, and even with the window rolled partway down he couldn’t breathe, so Amir shoved the door open and spilled out, kneeling on the pavement, his body shaking with chemicals of fear and stress and emergency response that had nowhere to go.

“Oh, shit,” Darrin said. “Is this... this isn’t your first time here, is it?”

Amir looked up at the stranger. He was just a thirty-something white guy in a black t-shirt and jeans and hiking boots, with a concerned look on his perfectly ordinary face. But would he turn into a monster in a moment? Amir scuttled backward.

Darrin took a step away and raised his hands. “Sorry, I thought... you were in a car, and that’s usually advanced traveler stuff. Most people who stumble into the briarpatch the first time do so on foot, so I just assumed....” He sighed. “Look, you took a wrong turn, but I can probably help you get back to the reality you know.”

“What are you talking about?” Amir demanded. “Is this Oregon or California?” He got to his feet, and leaned back against the side of his SUV. A little help staying upright was welcome.

Darrin shook his head. “Neither. This is the briarpatch. Which isn’t a very helpful response, I know, it’s like saying ‘You’re in the Milky Way galaxy,’ but as far as I know, this place doesn’t have a name, or at least, not one the residents have shared. I called it the Chameleon Lands on the map I’m making, because it’s full of things that disguise themselves, to capture prey or to try to escape with travelers.” He paused. “Sorry. That’s a jumble. I’ve been on my on for a long time. You’re the first human I’ve talked to in about six weeks. Um. So. There are many worlds. You could call them parallel dimensions, or pocket universes, or both. Just like in science fiction movies, you know? Some of the worlds are very stable, and some of them are almost dreamlike, too implausible to hold together for long, and those only last for a little while, and then dissolve... or explode. Once someone described it to me like, the multiverse is a giant foam of bubbles, with every bubble a separate universe, and some bubbles are big, and some are small, and some last just for a moment, and then... pop.” He scratched his scruffy cheek. “Some people call that big messy tangle of worlds, and the weird little bridges and corridors and stairways that lead to those worlds, the briarpatch. Certain individuals can access the briarpatch naturally, and some of them can bring guests, and then there are technological, or maybe magical, or maybe both, ways to access it otherwise. I thought maybe your car was... special... but I looked at it through these glasses I’ve got and it’s just a car, so it’s probably you who’s special. How did you get here? Do you remember the transition?”

Amir looked at him for a long moment. “I should go.”

Darrin nodded. “You don’t believe me.”

“I... That’s true. I’m sorry.”

Darrin shrugged. “That’s okay. You don’t have to believe me. But before you dismiss me, think about the thing I scared away before it could eat you, or trick you into giving it a ride to Oregon or California, where it could eat other people.”

“I don’t know what I saw. I was stressed, startled—”

“Are you stressed or startled now?”

“I... stressed, yes, but not startled.”

Darrin chuckled. “Fair. I mean, do you trust your senses now?”

Amir took the question seriously. He felt he was of sound mind and body. He nodded.

“So look up,” Darrin said.

Amir looked up.

There were three moons in the sky, and none of them looked like the one from where he came from.


After a certain period of psychological adjustment, they sat on the broad warm hood of Darrin’s car—“The Wendigo,” Darrin called it, and Amir assumed it was a model created in some other version of the ’70s in some other version of Detroit—and shared a water bottle back and forth.

“Highway hypnosis,” Darrin mused. “That’s a new one, but it makes sense. Finding your way to the briarpatch can be a perceptual thing. I’ve known people who did the right drugs and suddenly saw entry points to the briarpatch where they hadn’t before. Doors in walls that weren’t usually there, new trails in the woods, things like that. For me, it was more about training my eye, and realizing that anything I could see that my camera couldn’t see was a doorway to other worlds.”

“But I’ve driven this way lots of times, and zoned out plenty of times, and never ended up here before!”

Darrin shrugged. “Maybe it was a question of zoning out in the exact right spot, or at the exact right time. Some openings to the briarpatch are stable, and sometimes they come and go on timetables of their own, and sometimes they just happen without precedent or warning. It’s the difference between a door and a tide and an earthquake.”

Amir shuddered. He didn’t like to think about earthquakes. Even the little tremblers he’d experienced in grad school freaked out his east-coast soul. He and Kami joked that in moving from the Bay Area to Portland he was trading the San Andreas Fault for the Cascadia Subduction Zone; like trading getting stomped by King Kong for being stomped by Godzilla.

“Where were you headed?” Darrin said.

“I just finished my PhD and I’m moving to Portland, to live with my fiancée Kami. She runs a garden store in Multnomah Village, she’s a really amazing artist, started as a botanist but then got into painting and drawing plants more than studying them....” He shook his head. “I have to get back to her.”

“Yeah you do. I came into the briarpatch looking for someone I loved, the first time. I’m still a romantic, though a more pragmatic one these days.” He paused. “Of course, we’ll have to find the right Portland, but fortunately, my whole thing is mapping the unmappable places, so I think we’ll be all right.”

“You make maps of this place?”

“The one and only amateur cartographer of the briarpatch, that’s me. It’s hard when parts of the territory disappear at random, but I’m doing my best.”

“And you say... there’s more than one Portland?”

“There’s a million everythings.”

Amir looked at the crashed... ship? Artifact? “That thing, the creature, that looked like a woman... how did it change its appearance?”

“Who knows? Probably it didn’t. More likely it’s a mental thing. Limited psychic projection, messing with your perception. Maybe some weak telepathy, playing on your own biases, expectations, fears, whatever. Though they aren’t great at details, in my experience. That had to be a burned-out truck and not just a broken-down one, because if you opened up the hood and looked at the engine, the illusion wouldn’t get all the little fiddly bits right, and you’d realize something was wrong. It’s basically just protective coloration, a bug looking like a leaf, at a glance, but not at a close glance. Or, is it predatory coloration? I’m not a biologist.”

“I am,” Amir said. “I was thinking about certain butterflies that mimic the color of poisonous species, so predators will be afraid to eat them, but you’re right, this isn’t a case of protective coloration. It’s aggressive mimicry. More like an anglerfish. A predator that tries to appear harmless, or appealing, to lure in prey.”

“Yeah, that. This part of the briarpatch is full of anglerfish. Speaking of, we should get out of here.” He hopped down off the hood. “I’ll clear off the passenger seat so you have a place to sit.”

Amir didn’t move. “You just happened to come along in time to save me? In all the vast multiverse of this briarpatch place, you were just driving past this spot at this moment?”

“Happens more often than you think. I knew a guy who said people who can enter the briarpatch are often drawn together, like iron filings in a magnetic field, that kind of thing. You gonna get in?” Darrin opened the car door and began sweeping out vast quantities of paper to clear the passenger seat. Amir slid off the hood and walked over, looking at the torrent of papers sliding to the ground: it was like a dozen filing cabinets being dumped out. He saw fliers for heavy metal shows and karaoke nights and slam poetry festivals, supermarket circulars, brochures for assisted living facilities, torn envelopes, old lottery tickets, grocery store receipts, love letters, itineraries for cruise ship vacations, note cards for ancient speeches.

“I’m not getting in the car with you.”

Darrin looked up, puzzled. “Are you upset that I’m littering? Believe me, this place is a garbage dump already. If you walked out into the desert a little ways, the stuff you’d find....” He stuck out his tongue and made a face.

“It’s not because you’re littering.”

After a moment of looking blank, Darrin smacked himself on the forehead. “Right. It’s because I’m a predator. A big predator who scared off a little predator and is now trying to lure you to your death.”

Amir said nothing.

“That is a legitimate fear. A good samaritan can be indistinguishable from a serial killer, and I get that. But if we don’t go—”

The trunk of the Wendigo opened with a loud “click” and rose up. Darrin whipped around and stared at the trunk lid, and Amir backed away, filled with visions of Darrin grabbing him and shoving him in the trunk, except it wasn’t a trunk but a maw—

Darrin went to the trunk, looked inside, and exhaled. “It’s okay! It’s always a little alarming when that happens, I never know what I’m going to find, but, look.” He hauled out two bright red plastic gas cans, old-fashioned round-bottomed metal ones. “I’m guessing you’re low on gas?”

Amir nodded, not going close.

“I won’t come too near you, don’t worry. We’ll travel in separate cars, and that way you can feel safe. Pop the gas cap and I’ll fill you up? Then you can just follow me, and I’ll drive you back to where you need to go, or at least, get you close, maybe somewhere in Washington State. I think there’s a transition point from here to there, without having to pass through any intervening worlds—I’m not confident you could follow me through all the worlds necessary to take you right to your fiancée’s door, since you aren’t an experienced traveler. Tailgate me, okay? Really ride the Wendigo’s ass, don’t be afraid of scratching the bumper even. You don’t want to lose track of me.”

Amir watched as Darrin emptied both containers of gasoline into the SUV’s tank. He worried at first that it wasn’t gas at all, but something else, a trick to disable his vehicle... but honestly he’d be out of gas in a few miles anyway, and would a predatory chameleon monster just happen to have a trunk full of engine-wrecking chemicals hidden in gas cans? Paranoia was a survival mechanism in these circumstances, but it could be taken too far. Maybe Amir was being led to some kind of eldritch murder cave, but he wouldn’t let playing it safe ruin the possibility that he was being saved.

“All set!” Darrin got into the Wendigo, maneuvered it around, and pointed down the blacktop, in the same direction Amir had been going. Amir started the SUV, and the dash showed a nearly full tank and no warning lights. Darrin set off, slow at first, then picking up speed as Amir followed, close enough that a sudden stop would mean rear-ending him, but it wasn’t like there were traffic lights—or traffic—here.

There were other things, though: more wrecks on the side of the road, more jangles of twisted metal. Some were terrestrial vehicles, and some were things that looked more like abstract sculptures that had been dropped from a great height. For about a mile, something brown and furry loped alongside them, but Amir couldn’t get a good look at it, and only sensed that it had too many legs to be a wolf or a dog, and was twice as much too long besides.

Eventually the Wendigo slowed and put on its turn signal, and veered sharply right onto a dirt track that Amir never would have seen. They were setting off into the desert, and there were mounds of things in the distance, and things crouched on the mounds, and some of them stood up, too distant for Amir to make out details besides a sense of bipedalism and attention. How frustrating. What was the ecology like here? Was this really a closed system, with a population composed wholly of scavengers, or was there cross-species predation? Were there multiple species of mimics, or just one? Could all the creatures here use aggressive mimicry and protective coloration? His head spun with the possibilities, and curiosity gnawed at him.

Then the landscape blurred and they were bumping along a rutted path in the dark. The Wendigo’s headlights came on, and Amir’s flicked on automatically. The desert was gone, and there were dark trees pressing against them from both sides. Something was wrong with the trees—the branches didn’t have leaves, but instead had what looked like suckers, and the branches moved in ways that couldn’t be explained by wind.

Something thumped onto the roof of Amir’s car, and he slewed the steering wheel hard, almost losing control. A sound like nails on sheet metal erupted above him: was something trying to claw its way into his car?

That horrible horn blared again, and the darkness vanished after a moment, and the trees, too, and whatever had been on Amir’s roof tumbled off, bouncing as it went. They were back in the desert again under the bright sun (which was moving through the arc of the sky too fast, wasn’t it?) and three moons. Had they passed into another world for a moment, or was that place of darkness and tentacled trees just more camouflage, more glamour and illusion? If there were creatures here that could make him see a wrecked truck and a woman instead of a spaceship and a monster, why couldn’t they change his perception of the landscape, too?

Amir wished he could ask Darrin. Suddenly the cartographer of the briarpatch seemed very trustworthy indeed.

They continued for another ten minutes, and the desert altered again, but slowly, this time, with clefts appearing in the ground on either side, deep-sided arroyos where water had flowed, once upon a time. Soon the Wendigo signaled, and turned down one of the gullies. The ground inside was much more bumpy than the last track, and dipped and rose like a roller coaster. Amir followed as closely as he could, but eventually the terrain was so uneven that the Wendigo vanished fully from sight over a hill every couple of minutes, and Amir didn’t want to speed up because his shocks were already getting a thorough beating.

Then he came over a hill, and the Wendigo was gone—but a shimmering, ragged oval hung in the air. A portal, and through it, Amir saw part of a bridge, and the icy triangular peak of Mt. Hood in the distance. Darrin had brought him home, as promised, and if the Wendigo was nowhere in sight, well, maybe it had already passed through the portal, or else Darrin had simply enacted some magic and then gone on his way.

Amir drove through the portal, a little hesitantly, but the transition brought with it no particular shock or sensation. He could easily see how he’d driven unthinkingly through one of these portals on the Cascade Wonderland Highway and ended up in the Chameleon Lands.

In all, Amir had saved time on the trip, and had arrived in Portland a couple of hours earlier than he’d anticipated. The portal let him out by the Rose Garden (he and Kami were thinking of getting married in one of the parks near there), with views looking toward downtown and the river—

He eased the SUV to a stop at a buckled curb and stumbled out of the car, staring. The numerous, iconic bridges over the Willamette River were broken, reduced to scrap and shards sticking out of the water. Smoke hung in a pall all over downtown, and the skyline was all wrong, most of the buildings turned to rubble.

The long-expected earthquake had hit, and it had been devastating. He didn’t even hear sirens. How bad must things be, if there weren’t even sirens?

The earth rumbled hard enough to make him stumble against his car, and he watched in horror as the city visibly pulled apart, a huge chasm appearing in the center of the city, river water rushing in, and the remnants of buildings tumbling down.

An engine roared, and he spun to see the Wendigo lurch out of the portal and squeal to a stop behind him. Darrin jumped out, papers spilling after him. “Come on!” he shouted. “Get in! There’s a tsunami coming!”

“What?” Amir took a step toward the cartographer, who gestured urgently.

“Tidal wave! It’s going to level the city! Come on!”

“But—I need to get to Kami, she’s—”

“Probably already dead! Or, we can go look for her, okay, just come on!”

Amir moved toward the Wendigo, papers swirling around his feet, numb and confused... but something was wrong. He looked at the papers, and they were all the same size and shape, just plain sheets of printer paper, and though there was writing on them... he bent and plucked a couple from the ground. There were no lists of transactions, no lines of bad love poetry, no menus of happy hour specials. They were just gobbledygook, meaningless characters printed randomly, not the messy specific profusion he’d seen pour out of the Wendigo before.

Amir let his vision blur, looking off into the distance, letting his immediate surroundings become vague and less important. Assuming the vision of highway hypnosis. Reduced to the peripheral, Darrin didn’t look so much like Darrin anymore, and the Wendigo looked less like the Wendigo, and Portland didn’t even look so much like Portland either.

Aggressive mimicry. Lures and disguises. The predators were weakly psychic, Darrin had said. The real Darrin had said. They played on your hopes and fears.

He turned and ran back to his SUV, but the ground opened up again, and his car slid down into a sinkhole... except it wasn’t a sinkhole. It was a maw, ringed with ragged triangular teeth. Amir grunted and changed direction, and the thing pretending to be Darrin roared at him in guttural rage. The sound was horrible, but nothing like as terrifying as the Wendigo’s roar, so Amir didn’t slow down.

He did look back, though he wished he hadn’t. The false Darrin and the Wendigo were lurching toward him, but not like two separate creatures: Darrin was embedded in the hood now, human from the waist up, car from the waist down, but even that was shifting and changing, the whole shape melting and deformed.

As Amir ran, the vision of devastated Portland disappeared, replaced by the arroyo, the earth gritty and rough underfoot. The thing behind him was gaining, panting and snarling.

The Wendigo burst in from a side channel, stopped in front of him, and the passenger door popped open, papers cascading out. “Get in!” Darrin yelled from behind the wheel. Amir took in the reassuringly genuine random variety of spilled papers without slowing down, and hurled himself into the mostly clear seat. The car was moving before he was fully inside, the door slamming closed with a thump against his hip. “You okay?” Darrin said.

“I... think so.” I thought Kami was dead. I thought I was about to be dead. But he wasn’t, so, again: “Yeah. I think so.”

“Sorry about that. They tricked me, made me see you in my rearview even though you weren’t really there. The Wendigo had to flash a whole bunch of idiot lights at me on the dash before I realized anything was wrong. I hate this part of the briarpatch.”

“Thank you for saving me.”

“It’s okay. Sorry about your car.”

Amir groaned. “I forgot about that.”

“Report it stolen. Maybe insurance will cover it. Say you stopped use the bathroom at a rest stop and came back out and it was gone and hitched a ride to Portland. Nobody’s ever going to find your car, that’s for sure.”

Amir brushed some papers aside and settled back into the seat. The ride was surprisingly smooth—impossibly so, given how the landscape outside lurched and bounced. “You’ll take me to Portland?”

“I’ll get you there in an hour. We’re going to pass through a few places.”

They did. They went through five worlds in that hour, the longest for twenty minutes, the shortest for less than five. There were no portals, just instant transitions from one place to another. In that longest stretch, they drove over a basalt plateau beneath a turquoise sky that teemed with flying creatures in such profusion they sometimes blocked the light from both suns. In the shortest world, they passed through a crystal tunnel at the bottom of a sea, and vast pelagic monstrosities cavorted on both sides, writhing and incurious. The other worlds were less wild—one looked like the ruins of a World’s Fair hit by a neutron bomb, and another was literally a huge empty parking lot with a giant three-towered cathedral way off in the distance—but they were still strange enough to make Amir point and gasp and ask countless unanswerable questions.

Darrin drove easily and answered him easily, too. These routes were well mapped, he said. He’d been a cartographer of the briarpatch for ten years, and he’d barely covered a fraction. He had a life’s work, and seemed happy with it... but he didn’t know much about the wildlife, and he responded to Amir’s speculation about the alien biospheres and ecosystems with amiable shrugs.

“That place... those places... they’re extraordinary,” Amir said as they transitioned onto an Oregon highway he vaguely recognized.

“No argument here.”

“Are other people studying the briarpatch?”

“Maybe a few, but the people who can see the briarpatch are a pretty random assortment. It’s not like we’ve got a lot of geologists and ecologists and so on. Hell, I had to teach myself surveying out of books. Fortunately, you can eventually find any book you need, somewhere in the back seat of the Wendigo. Even some that haven’t been technically written yet.”

Amir opened his mouth to answer, and the glove compartment abruptly fell open, smacking against his knees. A notebook with a blue cover slid out into his lap. The notebook was hardcover and spiral bound, with a cheap ballpoint pin sticking out of the coil. On the cover were written the words “Field Notes.” Amir opened it, and saw closely scribbled handwriting, and the words: “The Greater Mimic of the Chameleon Lands has the remarkable ability to....” He stared. “This looks just like my handwriting.”

“Ha. That’s a pretty big hint.” Darrin patted the steering wheel like it was a beloved pet... or a dear friend.

“What do you mean?” Amir said.

“It’s just... when the Wendigo wanted a cartographer of the briarpatch, it found me. Maybe now it wants a naturalist.”

“The Wendigo wanted? You say that like it’s more than a car.”

“The Wendigo isn’t a car. It’s a thing that looks like a car.” Darrin shrugged, minutely. “Protective coloration. I don’t know what the Wendigo’s motives are, if it can even be said to have motives, but it saved me, once... and it saved you, too. I didn’t plan on visiting the Chameleon Lands today. The Wendigo picked that route. It picked you.”

Amir stared at him. Was he inside a car, or in the belly of a beast? “I’m not going to—to do fieldwork in the briarpatch! I have a fiancée, and a job, waiting in Portland. The real Portland.” Though his job didn’t start until the fall, and it was only a one-year position, and after that—but no. Ridiculous.

Darrin nodded. “One of the real Portlands, anyway. You did say your fiancée was a botanist, though, and there are some plants out here, is all I’m saying. You could be a team. Here, write this down.” He recited a post office box address, and Amir dutifully jotted it down in the field notes journal. “It’s a mail drop I check sometimes. If you ever want to go on an expedition, drop me a note. You could explore a little on your own—try it on foot. Walk around, zone out, let your vision go a little blurry, let your body move on autopilot. Maybe the passageways will open for you that way, too. It’s usually not too dangerous if you don’t go in very far, and the more you practice, the better you get at finding your way.” Darrin glanced at him. “Or maybe you’re the kind of scientist who can discover a heretofore unknown vast natural phenomenon and ignore it. In which case, good luck, and I wish you all happiness. We’re almost to the city. You want to tell me where I’m going?”

Amir’s phone worked again, and he pulled up directions to Kami’s place—his place.

But was it his place? Or anyway his only place?

In due time Darrin pulled to a stop on Kami’s block, and offered his hand. “Thanks for the company, Amir. Usually I ride alone, and I enjoyed the conversation. The Wendigo can seat three easily. If you were wondering.”

Amir thanked him for everything, but absently, his mind running off into the future again—though it was a very different future now. He watched the Wendigo drive away, turn a corner, and disappear. To be specific, it disappeared a moment before it finished turning the corner.

He went up the walk to Kami’s, and kept his eyes focused firmly on her front door as he did so.


About a year later, Darrin stopped at a post office in rural Idaho, the Wendigo idling outside. He wasn’t worried about leaving the engine running. Nobody was going to steal a car in this little town, and if anyone tried, the Wendigo would probably eat them.

He unlocked his PO box, and there wasn’t much: a postcard from his friend Orville, who was in Venice, apparently, and a honey-scented letter from his ex-girlfriend Echo, which he threw into the garbage without opening, annoyed she’d somehow found his address, again.

There was also a wedding invitation, postmarked just a week earlier, so he hadn’t even missed the ceremony. “You are cordially invited to the wedding of Amir Shirazi and Kamea Alana Māhoe....” Darrin smiled. He’d try to make it. Especially because there was a note written on a torn page from a notebook slipped in with the invitation:

Darrin—we hope you can make it. Kami would love to meet you. We’ve been taking a lot of long walks lately. And we were hoping to talk over some ideas about our honeymoon with you....
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