“I asked a cattle man what he thought of wolves: he said they were a dangerous species- prone to sudden vicious attacks, and that they had no regard whatsoever for his territory. I asked a wolf what it thought of man, and got the same answer.”


The wolf was not a young wolf anymore. Several freezes and thaws had passed since he had challenged the Grey One and taken the role of Akela- head of the Pack. He had been younger then- his limbs had been stronger and obeyed his mind’s commands more quickly, his senses and instincts had been keener and more attuned. But time had passed and now old wounds pained him when the temperatures dropped. Akela’s jaw ached from an infected tooth in the back, often making it hard for him to chew. Sometimes one of his eyes would become cloudy for a period, then clear up. And his back legs hurt him all the time.

There were at least two younger males in the Pack- Sharp Ear and Tall One- who now watched him carefully. They were not his offspring, but were the sibling children of a she-wolf the Pack had adopted several winters before. An unnamed primal sense told Akela they were gauging his strength for the inevitable challenge. A challenge that was not far off.

The Pack was making its way across a frozen flat tundra, skirting along the side of a deep ravine, headed for the high pass into the mountains- just visible on the horizon ahead. As they went, the wolves picked their footing cautiously in the deep snow that had fallen several days before, wary of drop offs. The feeding so far this winter had been very lean, and it had been several days since their last large kill, in the form of a pronghorn sheep and its juvenile, so bellies were empty and the overall mood was grim. Akela walked in front in accordance to his station, eyes and nose ever alert to dangers ahead or to their flanks. Behind him he could sense most of the pack focused on their steps along the precarious declivity, but he could also feel two pairs of eyes watching his every movement. Akela pushed the pain in his knees away, ignoring it, refusing to let the others see him limp even just a little.

Two days before, they had been headed South searching for ground free of show in which they could dig for small rodents and other food. There was a wide range that way that they knew from experience often contained very good hunting at this time of year. But something had changed now. As they had travelled, a dark line running from side to side had appeared up ahead. It had grown in size as they approached it, until it revealed itself to be a very large long rounded Thing, several feet off the ground. The Pack didn’t know what to make of this new element in their familiar territory, and it visibly unnerved some of the members. Its shape told them it was not a native part of the natural world they were so familiar with. The Thing stretched as far as they could see in both directions, at a height well above where they could leap over it, and it sat atop other Things spaced out every so often.

They could not see the pipe’s blue-green paint color, nor could they read the trademarked Rockham Oil logo stenciled onto it.

With caution, Akela had ventured toward the new Thing, sniffing carefully. It made no sound, nor movement. Whatever danger it may hold was impossible for the wolves to sense, which made them ever more wary. But he was the leader and this job was his.

The eyes of the whole pack were on him as he crept forward and, after a moment, bravely set a paw underneath where the Thing floated above. Nothing happened. Akela slowly moved another step forward, and then with a surge of effort leapt forward and skitted clean under and to the far side of the Thing- unharmed.

The Pack was obviously impressed, and Longtail, Akela’s young sire, crossed under as well, joining his father. But even this show of leadership could not convince many of the Pack members that it was safe to cross underneath the Thing, and several hunkered down before it, cowed by its alien appearance.

Akela had been left with a difficult choice, then. His experience told him food would be scarce and hard to come by to the North. He was the Leader of the Pack, and his choices should be obeyed. But the Pack was obviously against him in this. Sharp Ear and Tall One stood against him with the rest. The Thing had upset the delicate balance that allowed Akela to keep control over the group. That control was slipping now, and if he did not relent, his instinct told him the Pack would rebel, and challenge or not, would follow one of the others back North.

The wolves stood there in silence for a long moment. Their conversation took place without any sound, their fears and intents spoken only with mute stares and glances of golden eyes. But the decision was made. Akela came back underneath the Thing once more, and began leading them North.


The Ghosts of Ten Thousand Sneezes

I asked the Old Man what was wrong. He said:

“I worry about the ten thousand sneezes which never came out- a lifetime’s worth, all of them backed up into my head. Like a legion of ghosts… biding their time, slowly building pressure decade after decade…”

As he spoke those words to me, the Old Man’s voice slowly trailed off and he looked away. And just then, his head exploded.


The end.



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)

Haunted Barstool (the) – part 1



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.

Exit 17 (part 1)



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.