A buzz on the doorstep
The dialtone of summer nights
Endless yearning beneath humming lights
Reaching out for a fleeting connection
A concrete echo the only reply

  • Like what you see? Purchase a print or ebook version!

[JANINE is making drip coffee in the kitchen of a small farmhouse]

ANNOUNCER: We’ve replaced Janine’s Brand X coffee with new Revivify™ Extra Strength java. Let’s see if she notices.

[JANINE takes a sip and shakes her head vigorously.

JANINE: Wow, that’s strong stuff!

[From OUTSIDE THE FARMHOUSE, a sudden rumble!]

JANINE: The family plot!

[She runs to the window. We see the earth HEAVING, gravestones WOBBLING, as the dead ARISE and CLAW their way to the surface.]

JANINE: Uncle Jim! Grandma Josephine!

[Shambling to his feet, UNCLE JIM breathes a grim pronouncement through sepulchral lips.]

UNCLE JIM: We have AWAKENED, and now we go forth in search of living flesh to sustain our unlife!

[JANINE, shotgun in hand, attempts to barricade the door while wood splinters under undead assault as the ANNOUNCER speaks.]

ANNOUNCER: Revivify™: coffee so strong it will wake your ancestors. Find it in the necromancy aisle at your local supermarket.

  • Like what you see? Purchase a print or ebook version!

“Well, Chosen One,” said Opaem in an icy tone. “If you are such an expert in the Art of magic, perhaps you can teach me a better system.”

“Better than rock-paper-scissors?” Brianna said. “Uh, yeah? How about elemental magic? Fire, water, earth and, um, wind.”

“Wind?” Opaem said, with a raised, and skeptical, elven eyebrow.

“Yes, wind! It beats fire by, I dunno, blowing it out or something.”

“But fire consumes oxygen and leaves ashes, so would air not make fire stronger?” Opaem said.

“Water, then!” Brianna said. “It still makes more sense.”

“And what is burning? Not all fires can be extinguished so easily. What if it is a magnesium fire? That can burn underwater.” The elf furrowed his brows. “I am afraid it is your system that makes no sense, Chosen One.”

“How do you even know what magnesium is?” Brianna retorted. “Isn’t it like a chemical element?”

“It only exists in its elemental form once refined, which makes it a manufactured item. Therefore, a magnesium fire is extinguished by piling it with dry sand. Rock beats scissors. See? It makes perfect sense.”

“I don’t believe this! Next you’re going to tell me that you cast a fireball spell by throwing burning magnesium at people.”

“That is actually a really good segue into the next part of your training,” said Opaem.

  • Like what you see? Purchase a print or ebook version!

Four years since I
Celebrated the fourth
Even with this year’s
Reprieve I still look
At the skybursts with
A mixture of fear and
Self-righteous anger
In every explosion
The self-satisfied
Grins of people who
Do not realize they
Are burning the flag
As they try to honor it

  • Like what you see? Purchase a print or ebook version!

“There are three great schools of magic you will need to master, Chosen One,” Opaem intoned, his spidery fingers tented in front of the glittering gold threads of his mage robes.

“And…how long do I have to master them?” Brianna said, putting a hand on her hip.

“Seven days,” Opaem said, confidently. Before his charge could utter more than a surprised yelp, he went on: “The first school is that of the natural world at its most base, which we represent with a stone. The second school is that of the living or formerly living, which we represent with vellum. The final, and perhaps most difficult school is that of the manufactured, which we represent with these tempered steel shears.”

“Wait, wait, wait,” said Brianna. “A rock, a piece of paper, and a pair of scissors?”

“They are merely symbols,” said Opaem, though his long pointed ears clearly quivered with annoyance. “Now, the great cycle that is the magic of the Beyond is thus: the natural defeats the manufactured, the manufactured defeats the living, and the living defeats the natural.”

“That is literally just rock-paper-scissors!” Brianna cried.

“I suppose you could use that mnemonic to describe it,” Opaem said. “A great boulder may smash a finely-wrought blade, but that same blade will cleave parchment in Twain, and-“

Brianna tossed up her hands, nearly losing her Fifth Avenue bangle in the process. “Yeah! I know! Rock crushes scissors, scissors cut paper, paper covers rock! This is the dumbest magic system I’ve ever heard!”

  • Like what you see? Purchase a print or ebook version!

I noticed a post from an old friend
Half forgotten on my media feed
Clicked and looked, catching up
Without words in the digital way
Scrolling backwards I saw they’d had
A baby, and every photograph was of
A new milestone, often with labels
Done up nice on flowery chalkboards
Then there were posts of a tropical
Vacation, spouse in tow, all smiles
The feed went back to how it had been
But I could feel it there, unspoken
In between the images, amid the posts
A loss so near and dear that it could not
Be contained in a digital world, especially
One that demands only happiness

  • Like what you see? Purchase a print or ebook version!

“IT’S ALL A DREAM” was the title of the first book.

I threw it aside, and took up a magazine. “SCIENTISTS ASK: IS EVERYTHING REALLY REAL?” blared a headline.

Dropping it back in place, I grasped for a candy bar instead. “CLOUD 9: AN IMPOSSIBLY DELICIOUS DREAM BAR.”

“I get the feeling someone’s trying to send me a message,” I said. “If only they’d be a little clearer.”

  • Like what you see? Purchase a print or ebook version!

The Murder Theory

A final theory that is often mooted holds that the entire incident was an act of premeditated, cold-blooded murder. The suspects are almost always the same: Patricia Mercer, Carrie Mercer, or Cassidy Daniels, and the true target is almost always one of the three, with the others as innocent bystanders and collateral damage.

It was well-known in Findlay that Patricia Mercer, who was a single mother, and Carrie Mercer had been growing apart for some time. It was also well-known that Cassidy Daniels had been spending a considerable amount of time in the Mercer household, and that she was seen by Patricia as something of a surrogate daughter. The Mercers had quarreled loudly enough to be heard by neighbors at times, and Carrie Mercer had announced her intention to attend an out of state school not long before the trip began, something that their relatives attested had devastated Patricia, who had hoped her daughter would attend Idaho Community College and remain close.

For her part, Cassidy Daniels’ parents had just finished a trial separation by getting back together and had a well-known history of marital difficulties. These partly stemmed from the death of Cassidy’s only sibling, her younger brother Maxwell, at age 6. Maxwell had gotten into a quantity of toxic chemicals, including rat poison, and suffered from chemical burns and internal hemorrhaging. Some have noted Cassidy’s reputation as a manipulative and devious social climber as evidence that she, age 10 at the time, was behind her brother’s death. Could she have sought to remove Carrie Mercer from competition for a surrogate mother, and badly miscalculated?

Finally, Carrie Mercer’s fragmentary online diary entries were examined by police after her disappearance. While it confirmed that she had been having difficulties with her mother, the diaries also revealed that Carrie was a lesbian, and had written a number of flirtatious ‘letters’ to classmates she named as A, B, and D. Cassidy has been suggested as the subject of these letters, and the fact that the alphabetical pseudonyms skipped the letter “C” was much commented-upon at the time. After all, Cassidy has just begun dating a boy around her age–could Carrie have been possessive, or jealous, enough to kill?

All three had access to poisons; Cassidy’s parents sold pharmaceuticals, and her father would die of an opioid overdose in 2011, while Patricia and Carrie both participated in a multi-level marketing scheme selling mineral supplements that, in concentrated form, could be quite toxic. Speculation in particular swirled around the contents of three open canisters that bore signs of having been used for mixing chemicals that were found in the Mercer basement.

It need not have been any of them; investigations showed that William Reznik had been cheating on Maria Cruz for months, and that Cruz had also been unfaithful several times. Marcus Washington and Jose Ramirez Jr. were occasionally rumored to be a couple, as well. Any one of the tangle web of relationships in the small town of Findlay suggests a motive for murder, or perhaps even a suicide pact.

There is just one problem with all these theories: poisoning or murder on a hike is needlessly complex and fraught with uncertainty. The hikers had plenty of time, and opportunity, to murder one another before they were anywhere near Sagebrush Mountain. And while some of the post-mortem effects could be explained by overdoses of some drugs, no known substance can account for all of them.

  • Like what you see? Purchase a print or ebook version!

The Angry Mountain Theory

The Ide tribe originally lived in the area of Findlay until they were cleared off of their lands in the late 1880s during what were euphemistically termed the “Ide Wars” but which truthfully amounted to little more than forced marches, dumping the survivors in a reservation 500 miles away. Less than 100 Ide survived in 1909, when a group of researchers from California arrived to record their oral histories and language. The resulting report was published as no. 117 in the California Ethnological Survey series and remains an important document in the life of the handful of surviving people with Ide ancestry to this day.

Sagebrush Mountain was called Iichideeza in Ide, which in 1909 was said to mean “abode of the dead” but which later scholars variously rendered as “place of the spirit” or “home of ghosts.” According to CES no. 117, the mountain was the site of a disagreement between Naakshah, keeper of the living, and Ahsiy, keeper of the dead. After arguing fiercely for some time, they agreed to share custody, and for this reason it was said that the living might suddenly die and the dead might suddenly return to life on the mountain’s slopes. For this reason, and others set forth in the oral histories and tales collected in the CES, Iichideeza was considered to be both sacred and taboo to the Ide, and they rigorously avoided the area. In fact, as of this writing, a sign has recently been erected at the trailhead by self-identified Ide, still seeking federal recognition, beseeching hikers to stay off the trail to respect the cultural and religious history of the tribe.

All this is to say that there are some who consider the deaths of the Mercer group, along with the disappearance of one of their number, to be a supernatural event arising from the Ide beliefs about the region.

Ahsiy, the keeper of the dead in Ide oral tradition, will not suffer herself to be seen, nor will she suffer the utterance of a single word in her presence. Latter-day descendants of the Ide incorporate this into a ceremony of reverential silence, but CES no. 117 reports a more grim version: Ahsiy, when angered, would rip out the eyes of those who saw her and the tongues of those who spoke to her. And, of course, of the bodies that were recovered, all were missing their eyes and tongue.

Another oral history set down in CES no. 117 notes that Ahsiy rarely involves herself personally in mortal affairs, especially as daylight is taxing to her. As a result, the spirits of those she has claimed are given the opportunity to experience a taste of the quick and return to a sort of brief half-life in exchange for doing her bidding. There are seventeen different mentions of these spectral beings in the report; they are described as appearing like formless shadows who tirelessly hunt their quarry before bearing them away to Ahsiy’s realm. Again, the parallels with what Cassidy Daniels reported surrounding the disappearance of Carrie Mercer are quite obvious.

This theory holds that, by ascending Sagebrush late in the season and in foul weather, the hikers inadvertently angered Ahsiy, who in Idea tradition was give dominion over the waning of the year in addition to sharing the mountain with Naakshah. Thus angered by the intrusion, Ahsiy slew the weakest hikers before reanimating their bodies to attack the others, and tore out their eyes and tongues for their insolence. Cassidy and Carrie were spared as they had neither seen Ahsiy nor uttered a sound; they were later tracked and Carrie was taken after they failed to vacate the mountain, with Cassidy left as a sole, if brief, survivor for the sole purpose of carrying the tale to any other would-be infidels.

Of course, this interpretation relies almost entirely on a reading of CES no. 117, rather than speaking to any actual Ide. While no full-blooded Ide are alive today, the last having died in 1997, a number of people with significant Ide ancestry are still alive and have been making intense efforts since the 1970s to preserve what it left of their heritage. Crucially, the Ide Tribal Association (ITA) strongly disputes the characterization of Ahsiy, keeper of the dead, in the CES and in wild conspiracy theories. Ahsiy, they say, was one half of a balanced pair with Naakshah, and in most Ide stories it was Naakshah who, jealous of Ahsiy’s affections, lashed out at those who were insufficiently reverent of her. On a cold wet day in the fall and on a mountain that they both shared, Naakshah the keeper of the living would have been powerless to act.

Furthermore, the ITA points out that many other hiking groups have operated in the area–despite their request not to–and none have suffered the same fate, even in similar conditions. They find the whole notion to be based on a version of their history that was poorly recorded, biased, and sensationalized. The trope of evil, angry, ancestral Native American spirits is damaging to the rich culture they seek so hard to maintain, and its use as mere set dressing for a tragedy that involved no native peoples of the area at all is still more so.

Even from a purely credulous viewpoint, the story does not hold together. The Smithson tape has clear audio of Cassidy Daniels admitting that she saw and spoke to her fellow hikers as they died, which did not earn her a death sentence. Though hungry and suffering from exposure, both she and Carrie Mercer were making good-faith efforts to get off the mountain when Mercer vanished. And Occam’s Razor suggests that animal scavengers are a far likelier explanation for the victims’ missing eyes and tongues.

  • Like what you see? Purchase a print or ebook version!

The UFO Theory

“Newdog’s Law” states that “the longer any sufficiently interesting mystery remains unsolved, the probability that someone will suggest aliens as a culprit approaches 100%.” The same is true of the Sagebrush Mountain Incident, and UFO-related theories were in wide circulation as early as mid-1998.

Strange lights in the skies over the area had been reported in late July and early September, with the July incident being featured in a news segment for local broadcaster K6BM in August. Amateur video and trail camera footage collected for the broadcast is inconclusive, with some bright lights visible but no way to rule out thunderstorms or low-flying aircraft.

Sagebrush Mountain was mentioned in the final report for Project Blue Book as well; an incident in 1957 and another in 1967 were both investigated before the project was terminated in 1969. The first incident, dated September 11, 1957, was for “clusters of low-lying lights” over the mountain and the outskirts of Findlay, with four reports over two days from locals. The second, dated September 16 1967, reported “silent flashes” in the sky and “cold fire in the woods” and was noted from a single eyewitness, name and details redacted. Officially, the 1957 incident was classified as a sighting of the experimental U-2 from Dugway, while the 1967 sighting was dismissed as “unreliable.”

Three of the hikers were involved in the Findlay UFO Club, a group ostensibly devoted to researching supposed alien activity in the area: Jose Ramirez Jr., William Reznik, and Carrie Mercer. A fourth hiker, Reznik’s girlfriend Maria Cruz, had attended some meeting as well, though she supposedly called it “stupid” at family dinners afterward.

The working theory behind this approach also takes note of the fact that Reznik and Ramirez were the last two hikers to join, though both were well-known to Patricia Mercer as former students. Since the previous two UFO sightings had taken place in mid-September on Sagebrush Mountain with a ten-year gap, they may have joined in order to see any return for themselves. A variety of rumors continue to abound over 1977 and 1987 sightings, as well. And for the only surviving member of the UFO Club to be ‘abducted’ by shadowy figures only adds to the mystery.

Of course, it is now well-known that flights from Dugway often pass over the area, which may explain the lights in many if not all cases. And while much rumor suggests UFO sightings in 1977/1987, exhaustive archival searches have turned up no evidence. The lone observer from 1967 has never been identified, and 1957 observers had all died by 1997, making their stories impossible to corroborate. And there is no coherent explanation of why aliens might abduct a member of the UFO Club while murdering three others–to say nothing of the fact that surviving club members claimed that it was nothing more than a group that watched science fiction movies.

  • Like what you see? Purchase a print or ebook version!