There was once a man who, one terrible night, became trapped in an IKEA store with a vampire.
He searched and searched for something made of wood with which to stake the fiend.
“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.
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.
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.