A real bastard of a day, if you think about it.
He was an old man now, and the stories had begun to slip away from him.
Age had claimed many of his friends, pals he had shared priceless memories with… memories he could still recall when prompted, but whose images now flitted in and out of his periphery like phantoms- eluding his waking mind, only showing themselves to linger on the hazy edge of his sleep at night, or in the late morning when he woke. These memories taunted him with the whispered voices of forgotten friends and fleeting snapshots- sometimes in grainy black-and-white, sometimes in full three-strip Technicolor- of wondrous times not to be forgotten.
There had been a farm early on. Long fences of oxidized barbed wire his mother had told him were sure to give a person lockjaw if that person were careless enough to catch themselves on their razored fruit. There had been skies of cerulean and amber and midnight purple that went on and on and on forever, or at least until their wispy clouds crashed into the far-distant mountains on the horizon, where the sun would make its daily entrance and its nightly bow over fields rippling with swaying grass and dotted with grazing cattle. There had been literature and grammar lessons in school and tryouts for the track and field team and an old Chevrolet pickup that had a chronically-bad distributor… and there had been a dusky afternoon in his family’s hayloft with a girl who had freckles on her shoulders. He could remember the freckles, but the girl’s name taunted him over the gulf of years.
During this childhood time there had been dreams. Always dreams. Dreams of rocket-powered jet ships which could reach faraway galaxies. Dreams of rampaging dinosaurs causing havoc on the main street of his small sleepy town. Dreams of Halloween tricks gone terribly awry, of ghostly children haunting old schools and animals who knew your secret name. These dreams had mostly escaped, like wisps of steam between grasping fingers. Some had been jotted down on napkins, in the margins of books he loved and between the lines of his dreaded mathematics homework.
And there had been dreams of Mars.
There had been a war that his eyes had been too poor to let him help fight. But the books he’d studied had gotten stuck in his soul, and he had ended up seeing where the war was fought after all- even if he had carried a typewriter instead of a carbine rifle. There had been brave and scared young American boys and brave and scared young German boys and he had been on a ship that was struck by a torpedo but didn’t sink.
There had been a time in New York City when several sailors had taken issue with his friend Sully when Sully had the nerve to chat up a girl the sailors were all waiting to dance with. It had been the Old Man’s one and only fistfight, but it had been a good one- the kind that began with bloodied noses and broken furniture and ended with bruised laughter and jokes and a shared respect amongst men to whom fighting had become a daily routine, but who now lacked a material enemy with whom to engage.
But during all that time- in the frigid forests of the Ardennes, in warm but shark-infested waters of the Pacific, even in the crowded and noisy streets of New York, Mars was always there. Always.
(to be continued)
Taken as a whole, there was nothing unusual about the stool. Fastened by semispherical brass rivets to the worn and water-shrunk maple floorboards of Woodall’s Fine Drinks and Food in Old Monongahela town (just upriver from Pittsburgh), it stood without note alongside its dozen-or-so brothers, which ran the length of the old bar. It had no proper designation at all, in fact, being just a rather common type of stool- utilitarian in its design from its dented and tarnished metal base to the aged cracked leather seat which had been re-stuffed at least once in the last seventy-odd years since Woodall’s had opened.
The bar’s regulars had a name for it, however: a sinister nomenclature they used only when they referenced it in thick whispers amidst the din of a typical rowdy night of hard drinking. In their gin-tinted accents, they called the stool NUMBER 6.
Monongahela was a hard town. It had sprung up perhaps a little too-quickly in the early years of the area’s steel boom as a barge town. Its situation on the banks of the river which lent it its name made it an ideal waypoint for the shuttling of coal downstream to fuel the furnaces currently feeding the Nation’s need for the strong but lightweight metal. There were no easy jobs between the tearing of the black rock from the Earth’s bosom and the vomiting forth of the red-hot ore. Digging underground, feeding the coke refineries, piloting the barges or tending the white-hot foundries- it was all hard and dirty work and only the tough could do it.
That’s who drank at Woodall’s. The Hard. The Tough.
And yet it wasn’t uncommon for an inanimate object (even one as innocuous as the stool) to acquire a sinister reputation with the working men of a town like Monongahela. Some were only a few years removed from their arrival from the Old World. Many were at most a generation distant, and they had brought much of their folklore and superstition with them in their journey across the Atlantic from Warsaw, Prague, Budapest, and other towns with names far too obscure and difficult to pronounce to be included in this manuscript. But even accounting for the superstitious nature of the local culture, the stool standing at Woodall’s embodied an unreasonable amount of terror, given its humble presence.
Perhaps this was due in large part to the sad story of Micah Kosciusko. Old Micah had come over in ’63, when the furnaces were working overtime to churn out the cannonballs to help defeat the Rebels. He’d been a young man then, so slender folk would comment that if he ever wanted to avoid trouble, all he’d have to do would be to stand sideways. By the Turn of the Century, however, Micah’s girth had grown significantly more prodigious, and soon it wasn’t uncommon for the proprietor of any one of the many drinking establishments Micah frequented to eye the voluminous man worriedly, all the while casting nervous glances at the venue’s furniture.
But the barstools at Woodall’s were sturdy affairs. They’d been made by the Mercury Company in the 1880’s, when things were still made well- which was fortunate considering the vast array of indignities (and various fluids) a barstool in Monongahela or any working town for that matter was likely to be subjected to on a regular basis.
As the regulars told it, on a bitter cold February night in 1909 Old Micah had been spending a quiet evening of soul searching astride Number 6. The bar was busy that evening, and old Saul Woodall was near run off his feet trying to keep up with his patrons’ thirst for strong drink. The story went that eventually, as is normal, the boilermakers Micah had been downing made their way through and he had to visit the toilet in back. As was custom, Micah took out his handkerchief and, unfolding it, laid it out on the seat of his stool to save it while he acquiesced to nature’s calling. This was a time-honored custom with the drinking men of any civilized tavern, and callous and craven was any man who disregarded it.
Such a man was young Tobias Snodgrass.
He struggled through the drifting waves of coarse white sand. The desert was anonymous- the rocks and sand and scrub and occasional twisted naked tree had taken on the look and feel of everything else… distance fooled his eye, and before long he realized that he was back where he’d first lost his bearings. He was walking over his own footprints.
But then he realized there was something new, as well… he looked again. Another set of prints. Small ones, walking just to the left of his own tracks… always a few feet to the left.
Get up, his inner self told him. Follow them. Hurry. There’s someone else here. Maybe someone who knows which way leads out of this godforsaken featureless hell. So he followed them, racing the setting Sun until:
They ended. Suddenly, they just stopped. Impossible.
And then he knew whose prints they were.
The great ball of fire burned the air as it sank below the sand to the west, and he found himself on his knees, exhausted. Unable to move. More tired than he’d ever been in fifty-odd years. Slowly, blissful oblivion found him. He could feel it seducing him as it came, and he didn’t care. He knew if he lay down he would never get up, and he didn’t care.
He could hear her calling to him out of the blackness. Her image danced in the periphery of his mind. She was tiny, her hair all in ponytails and the rhinestones on her sundress sparkling in the Sunlight. She was smiling, waving. Happy to see her dad’s buddy Ray.
She was happy to see him.
Then the blackness washed over him again. Just flashes now: The truck. Janie’s sweet smile as he drove her home. Highway signs flashing by. Janie’s face, all gone pale now, not happy anymore. The desert road stretching on and on. The flat tire. Janie running. She was fast for such a little thing, but his legs were still longer. One more look on her tiny face, a scared look, and then blackness again. Always blackness in the end.
He’d thought he’d woken up, but he could see Janie leaning over him as he lay there, so he knew he was still asleep, because Janie was dead. She was smiling again, but it was a different smile now. A dark smile.
Her laughter tickled his ears, fading away as he woke up for real this time. Nothing. Not a sound. The desert should have sounds, even at night. He looked around. Little footprints. All around him.
He called her name. He screamed her name. He pleaded with her, lied to her. Anything. He needed her. She came and went as she pleased here. This was her place now, this wasteland. He stood in the dark and listened to her bone china laughter echo over the moonlit dunes, and he knew then in his heart that they would find his bleached bones here one day, half-buried in the sand, but they would never find hers, because she was part of all this now. He’d made her part of it, and now she was going to do the same for him.
It was snowing like hell and I was in the middle of Ohio, so that was two bad things.
The snow had started the day after Thanksgiving and it hadn’t let up now for twenty-four hours. I’d gone to Toledo for a medical procedure, and was now on my way to Pittsburgh to conclude some long-outstanding business of a very personal nature- an easy five hours on any other day. But today was no ordinary damn day.
As the weak winter Sun lowered past the naked branches of trees lining the interstate, and the snow continued to blow against the windshield of my Studebaker, and the old familiar spidery tinge at the base of my spine started snaking its way north up my backbone. This could be fine, or I could be in trouble. The whole thing was a tossup.
I kept driving for a spell, taking the occasional sip of hot coffee from my thermos to help convince my eyes to stay open. I kept driving, and things kept getting worse. The highway was getting bad. They’d salted it, but the new snow was coming down too fast. By the time I passed Elyria, the world around me was an inky black void beyond the halo of my headlights, populated only with the swirling, dancing white flakes which crashed over the glass in a constant barrage before skittering every which way. Every so often there would appear the occasional twin pinpoints of red tail lights ahead, which would slowly grow and grow until I’d pass some big truck taking it easy on the bad roads, or sometimes some poor family in a wood-paneled wagon, the father’s knuckles white on the wheel, his wife making the whole thing harder by hollering at him the whole time. The kids would be in the back, frightened like their parents or not caring at all, reading a comic book. Kids.
I’d take it easy passing them, so as not to startle the old geezer into jerking the wheel and killing his whole family. I didn’t need any more blood on my conscious than I already had. Once safely past them I’d push the engine a bit more. It was a good heavy car, the Studebaker. It held the road well. But the brakes were worn, and I knew I had to watch it. I’d meant to get them replaced, but I’d been busy with my work, lately. Now here I was.
Another ten miles and the damn stuff was coming down worse than ever. I’d had to slow way the hell down just to stay on the road and not steer off into the ditches on either side. This was getting ridiculous. If I slowed down any more I’d have to put the goddamn car in reverse. I passed a sign for an exit that advertised hot food, and my stomach did a little somersault. I was almost out of coffee, too. As the exit neared I turned the wheel to get off. Bad choice. The wheels on the car turned, but the car keep going. I tried to steer into the skid but the back end started slewing to the left. I tapped the breaks, nothing hard- but I may as well have not. The Studebaker started doing a lazy spin across the double lane. I saw trees pass before me, then the highway behind me, then more trees, then the exit ramp, then trees again until finally the Studebaker pirouetted to a gentle stop, sitting crosswise across two lanes of traffic.
Luckily for me the road was now all-but deserted. I took a breath and shook off the spiders that had crawled up the back of my neck. I had to get off the road before a car came. The Studebaker had stalled during the skid, and I pressed the starter to get it going again. It churned, and coughed, and that was about it. I pumped the gas pedal a bit to feed the engine and tried it again. Cough. Gurgle. Nothing.
Something in my periphery caught my eye. Far off down the road two white lights had appeared over a small crest. Alright then. Time to get moving. I could see the long graceful slope of the off ramp right in front of me, making its graceful way down the low embankment until it met the straight rural road below the interstate. Right there at the junction sat as cozy a little diner as you could want, its neon open sign glowing, road-weary sedans and trucks parked in the lot. I’d skidded out right at the exit. So close, just a few feet.
I gave it a little more gas, careful not to flood the engine- and pressed the starter a third time. The engine gave a few turns this time. Good news, since the headlights down the road had now grown a helluva lot closer. I tried again but just got the same result. And again. Alright. The lights were starting to get awful near. This wasn’t working.
Out of habit I stuck my hand under the seat and pulled out the coal-black 1911, made sure the safety was on, and tucked it in my coat pocket before elbowing the door open. I put the shifter in neutral and got out into the freezing bluster. The lights were pretty damn close. I pushed on the door with all my might, and wound up with my bandaged face on the icy concrete as my shoes went out from under me. Beneath the car, I got a good look down the road. It was a truck that was coming- one of the big ones they used for hauling goods cross-country. Even if the fella driving somehow saw me in all this blowing crap, there was no way he could bring something that size to a stop in time. Not on this ice. The truck’s radiator grille would be chromed steel. The idea of trying to put a bullet through its engine block to stop it was nothing more than fantasy, especially in this weather. So I got back up and pushed again, digging the heels of my shoes in as best I could. I pushed for what seemed like a real long time, and then a miracle- the Studebaker’s wheels rolled maybe an inch. Then another. I dug in and pushed again. Each inch was a bit more momentum to get her rolling. I didn’t look up for the truck anymore. Looking wasn’t gonna make it slow down any. A foot now, then another. Only ten more to go. The car was rolling good now. Out of the corner of my eye I caught a glimpse of my shadow stretching out, lit by the oncoming headlamps. I kept pushing. The sound of an air horn came out of the darkness. He’d seen me, but it was too late. I dug in and gave another heave and the Studebaker’s front tires slipped over the white line and onto the inclined pavement of the ramp. Gravity was on my side now. I kept pushing.
With a frigid gust of wind and a roar, the truck barreled behind me, missing the back bumper of the car by I don’t know how many inches. Probably not many. The sound faded and then the behemoth was swallowed by the night and gone like a phantom.
The Studebaker was rolling on its own now. I hopped in before it could get away from me and closed the door. The heavy hunk of steel rolled down the hill in silence, a Flying Dutchman with me pumping on the breaks the whole way. There was a stop sign at the bottom where the ramp met the road but fortunately no one was coming as I sailed through without stopping, bumping over the low curb of the diner’s lot and rolling to a gentle stop next to an old Packard.
I put the key in my pocket and glanced at the reflection of my face in the rearview mirror. This was going to be complicated. Maybe I could just wait out the storm in the car. By daybreak it would probably die down. But the car was dead, at least until I could look under the hood. That meant no heat, so after considering a moment I decided there really was no other option. I grabbed a scarf from the backseat, as well as a hat with a good wide brim, and did the best I could.
A gust of polar air swept across the parking lot as I trotted to the diner, making the radio aerials of the cars whip back and forth. I took the four steps in two and grabbed the door handle and pulled.
It was the Holy of Holies… possibly the most elusive collectible in the realm of horror memorabilia, although to call such a thing memorabilia was to grossly mislabel the substance, as well as greatly undervalue its worth.
Daniel was thirty-eight and had been hearing about Powdered Frankenstein at least since his twenties. It was almost the equivalent of an urban myth in his circles- his circles being rabid collectors of the ephemera of old monster films. He and his peers (whom he privately considered to be his competitors as well) were solitary ghouls by nature- largely divorced from so-called ‘conventional’ family and romantic ties- haunting annual horror conventions, skulking around estate sales in the heat of Los Angeles summers, even known to borough through movie studio dumpsters to find those rarities whose true value others could not see.
His was a discerning lot, not content with the usual replicas or latter-day mementos from 80’s slasher films like many collectors. Daniel and his kind were dedicated to a grander era of moviemaking before the rise of gimmicks like Cinemascope and Technicolor, when caped figures and misshapen silhouettes stalked across black and white screens. Their prizes were therefore all the more valuable- and harder to find: Prosthetic forehead pieces worn by Glenn Strange, Charles Laughton’s bullwhip from Island of Lost Souls, Lon Chaney Jr.’s furry slippers from The Wolf Man. Each was an invaluable relic from an age of classic cinema long-since dead. These specimens did not come cheap, and fakes were notoriously prevalent, but Daniel’s kind were experts at spotting contemporary forgeries and fabrications.
None of the above, however- not even Bela Lugosi’s Dracula Cape- were on the same plane as Powdered Frankenstein.