Letters - pt. V

“I came upon a veritable wall of dead things. A natural fence of desiccated branches, emaciated saplings and ill-fed ivy vines clung together and blocked my way forward. I kicked at it and found that it broke apart easily. Beyond was the steady upward slope of a ten foot hill comprised solely of black rock. The forest hugged the perimeter of the hill, and the trees bent inward slightly. Peering over the natural fence like overbearing relatives. The saplings that formed the fence grew from dusty soil at the edge of the rock line. The rock looked volcanic. Flat and angular, with a dull luster. On the top of the hill sat the monument I’d been seeking. An obelisk of brown stone towering above me, blocking out the sun. I stood in its shadow. Words aren’t enough.

The black rock looked shattered and uneven. As though the monument had pushed up through the Earth, broke through the surface from below with volcanic force. The brown pitted stone of the obelisk stood stark above the glassy blasted rock. It looked ancient. I needed to be closer, to make certain that this wasn’t a dream or a psychotic break.

I made my way up the black rock. I expected the rock to splinter like shale, but it was firm and so smooth that I lost my footing and slipped a few times during my ascent. I cut my hand bracing my fall, but I couldn’t feel the pain.

Then I was there. Winded, bleeding, exhilarated. I was witness to the impossible. A thing like this could not exist in a place like this. I touched it, rubbing my cut hand across it; a streak of dull purple against red-brown stone. Aged and worn, but not pitted as I’d thought. No, it was graven. On all four sides and stretching up to its speared point were letters. Writing covered it. I did not recognize the letters, they weren’t english, or cyrillic. They didn’t look like logograms, hieroglyphs or pictograms. But they were words. Sentences. Words.

And as I stared at them, at the impossibility of an ancient obelisk sitting in the center of a Long Island state park, the words began to dance upon the stone. They twisted and writhed, sinuous as a flexing muscle. A buzzing, the sound of dying cicadas, rose and fell from the woods around me. Lulling me into a trance aided by the snaking symbols, and as they spiraled skyward and my eyes ran across them I found myself understanding. I still couldn’t read it, but I knew. It was telling me a story.

It’s funny, because throughout this entire thing I’ve had it in the back of my head that I’ve somehow found my way into one of my own stories; a paranoid search for my own humanity. Now I realize that I’m in one of yours, Sam. Unmade by the vastness of the universe.

The plinth spoke to me. I saw images in my mind. I saw a world. A forest with yellow skies, grey clouds, and black leafy trees with bruised pink trunks. Hardscrabble ground leaked volcanic steam. Trekking slowly across it, barefoot, were robed humanoids. The creatures had furry arms and legs. Their legs shook with each step and behind them they left a trail of bloody footprints. They were exhausted, wobbling like newborns, fur matted and oily, tired but determined. The creatures picked their way through that corpse-wood until they came to a hill and obelisk of their own. When they saw it they stopped before it and swayed uselessly. Then they dropped to their knees. I could see the dense rock drive deep, piercing flesh and breaking bones, but they didn’t seem to notice the pain. All they did was fling their arms skyward and scream. And from the screams a chant filled the air. A warbling shriek of words and sounds. Desperate supplication riding waves of fear. And the words on the obelisk crawled along the surface of the rock.

It was hard to tell where I was at this point. I could taste the acrid air of this alien world. I could see the plinth atop the black rock hill surrounded by forest. I could hear the screaming as it tore through both worlds. My eardrums vibrated violently, and just as I was about to vomit and throw myself upon the volcanic rock I felt a pulse of silence disturb the noise. The creatures fell quiet at the base of the object. A steady thrum beat the air, scanning the yellow sky of the alien world, and the iron grey of my own, I looked around to find its source. A slender figure spiraled out of the sour candied sky, breaking through a thick storm cloud. The clouds covered it like a cloak which slowly dissipated as it fell. Then, huge wings unfurled and flapped in a great beat, once, to halt the descent of the thing. Another thrum hit the air as its wings flapped again, and a gust crashed upon me like a wave. Its skin was a deep oxblood. A blunt hammer-head sat atop a slender and muscular neck. It had four limbs; all shaped like arms, and had a long, powerful back that ended in a short, tapered tail.

It wrapped its wings around itself again and dropped from the sky like a stone, then parachuted to a stop by once again opening its wings. It leveled out smoothly and glided downward. Toward the obelisk. Its face was eyeless and lipless. Reptilian teeth grinned in menace. The thing exuded a weird terror akin to looking up at the night sky and watching the stars go out, one by one. Of watching galaxies pulse and then wink out. Leaving you staring upward into a universe of nothingness. My armpits and feet grew damp with sweat, my mouth dried and I could feel my balls shrink up into my body; the true fear response of a species meeting its superior. When the thing got close to the plinth it gracefully sailed around it once, then grabbed hold of it with its prehensile fingers and mounted the tip. It secured its purchase, then folded its wings around behind itself. Two large membranes at the front of its face shivered as it craned its head, first down at the worshippers and then at me. The membranes drummed loudly as it whipped its head back and forth and gnashed its teeth. Then, like a tree frog, it clambered about the plinth to gain a better vantage. To see me. It was huge as it hunched above me and those wide membranes beat out a slow rhythm, but otherwise it stood still. Still as the rock it perched upon.

The words carved into the plinth continued to shiver and sway, and then etch themselves onto the creature’s rough, red hide. They danced up the plinth and spiraled onto the flying monster, and the creature didn’t move. It seemed to focus entirely on me. As if I were expected to do something. To tell it something. And I did. I told it a story, and as I spoke the obelisk continued to pour its language onto the entity. The story of the entity. The description of the entity. A word, a book, a sentence. A symbol that represent a greater idea. What are we but a collection of words? What are we but a story our DNA tells to the universe. The obelisk. The creature. Me. Made of all the same letters. Maybe, though. Maybe that’s the only way I can make sense of it?

When the red thing was covered with language it pushed off and glided away gracefully. The gentle currents of the wind carried it far. With a few deft flaps it gained altitude, and once more, story laden, pierced the storms above.

I couldn’t help myself. I held my hand against the plinth. Desperately. I don’t even remember when I switched fully back to our world and away from those wrong skies. I don’t remember making the choice to reach out my bloodied hand. To place my palm on the cool stone.

When I did I saw it rise. It rose up, not in the world where my hand was. In other times and other places. Smashing up through shale, soil, dirt, sand, water, molten rock. Penetrating the reality of a thousand worlds. The letters slid up my arms and now down through my pen and onto this paper. Then, soon, seen by your eyes and up into your brain. Then you’ll write them, and share them…

The words are what’s important. Not the obelisk. Not the yellow skies, or black lightning, or wailing creatures. The world is made up of words, Sam. Chair, window, desk, God. Syllabic constructs deep with meaning and context. The words are what are important, and now they are part of me. Language is creation. What exists without it? I am it, it is me, it is the creature and the obelisk. It is the stars and the night sky. Now, it is you too.

The storm is getting worse. The skies are black and roiling with clouds. The rain is torrential. The obelisk is obscured, now. Lost in the rain clouds. But yet, even at this remove, I can feel the patter of rain on its surface. I can feel the trees swaying around me, hissing in fear at the electricity in the air. I too fear as the electricity builds and fluxes. As the clouds thunder across the sky, readying their bright and wild swords. This is definitely one of your stories, Sam. A dark pantheism where even the very sky is alive and ravenous.

I suppose the themes that I love are still here, somewhat. Now that I see through the counterfeit of reality. That we are all and ever one thing. All that has ever been is in us. As I breathe, unhindered by rain and wind, I can feel the storm all around me. I can feel the tickle of static as millions of volts of electricity caress the obelisk out in the park. The strikes are getting closer.”

 

     And that was it. Just a dark scrawl on that last page. I can’t believe any of this. I’d always known Finch was out there, but this—this is too much. Too much to believe, and yet. Yet here I am, sitting at his desk, writing with his pen. Writing words and staring at the boarded up window. Puzzling over the blackened wood hidden beneath the fresh boards which barred the window. In my mind’s eye I can almost see through those boards, I can see those treetops that Finch described, I can see a heat-blackened obelisk jutting just over the tree line, a scrawl of words spiraling up its sandstone hide. I want to see that.


     It couldn’t hurt for me to pull the boards down. I think I should, in fact. I’ll tell the officer that I’m leaving, then I’ll sneak back in and stay the night. I can write until morning and pull those boards loose at first light. To see if it was just a story.


© Tim Mucci, 2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Tim Mucci with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Letters - pt. IV

     Upon entering I immediately recognized the layout from Finch’s letters. Bathroom to the left, mini kitchen to the right. Further down on the right was a wicker chair with a ratty papasan sitting in front of an older model television. DVDs were stacked up next to the TV. Across from his living room was his bedroom; a mattress, and a few storage boxes stacked in tiers. His office was a triangular nook cut into the room, and I could see the window that supposedly looked out upon the park and that mysterious monument. The window was boarded up. A crisp, pungent odor hung about the entire apartment, like an old perfume, especially in the area of Finch’s desk by the window.

     Finch’s desk is a raw wooden thing with an uncomfortable wooden chair tucked under it. A laptop lay off to the side, a portable typewriter next to it and a thick stack of graph paper sat in the middle of the desk; a fat blue fountain pen lay atop the paper. On the floor next to the desk were a half dozen shoe boxes, all stacked up. Sheets of paper were sticking out of the topmost shoe box. Endless dark scribbling filled the pages.

     Inside were notes and unsent letters, all handwritten. I thumbed through them, found the one with the most recent date--last Tuesday--and plucked it out of the box. It was addressed to me.

“SAM!  I can’t even describe today! Language fails. I’m not thinking rationally and I thought I could write this down but it’s hard to think. The stone, the words. I can’t. I need to. I need to eat and drink and think. I’ll continue, or start again later.”

     The pages felt stiff, as if they’d been damp very recently and had hardened as they dried. The ink was smudged in places, and entirely scratched out in others, but was otherwise readable.

“I stopped. But then I started again. I’m calmed now but still a little freaked out. It just started raining. Rain and thunder. It’s not helping things. It’s like I can’t stop writing. Even when I can barely comprehend what I’m writing about. Strange landscapes, byzantine plot-lines, weird characters. Like nothing I’ve ever written before. A persistent whispering in my ear. I’m exhausted but I can’t close my eyes to sleep. Because I’m staring out at it. The monument. The orator. Sitting there among the trees. Auditing the discourse of the storm. I need to stop to write.”

     I looked down at the packed shoe boxes, now gaining an inkling of what they contained.

“Okay, my thoughts are a bit more organized now. Maybe it’s because I did some writing, or maybe it’s because of the soothing sound of the rain on the window. This morning I decided to go to the park to see if I could find the obelisk. I was really excited, and an anxious vibrating energy filled me as I stepped out of the house. It was early morning, just before sunrise. The park isn’t that far so I decided to walk and enjoy the break of day and the cool morning air. The sun crested the horizon almost as soon as I left the house. Cool air and the warm sun on my face in the quiet of the morning. These are the things that make me happy.”

     There were many lines scratched out here, and I needed to turn the paper over to get to the next legible sentence. I continued reading.

“I thought I was crazy at first, when I saw the road to the park. I felt like I’d been here before. I didn’t remember until I was standing there, but I knew that my mom brought me here as a kid! The memory is so vague, and just about the only thing I remember was the smell of wet leaves, the old white farmhouse sitting just off the road to the park, and some kind of large bird. As I explored the park further I found that I had no memories of the place.

It was empty. Not a shout or laugh. I wandered the paths for hours trying my best to line up certain landmarks in my head so I’d be able to find that stone. It was taller than the treeline, and I knew that it was beyond the squat grey water tower that I could also make out from my window, but beyond that I didn’t have a clue where it might be. I wasn’t afraid of getting lost, though thinking of it now, I should have been. And I did get lost, but  I never once thought of giving up. If I had to spend the night among the scrub pines and wet trails to find the thing, then so be it.

But that wasn’t necessary. I happened upon one of the park rangers. He came wading out of the bushes with a dazed look on his face. He just sort of stumbled out onto the path, starry-eyed. His skin was sun-browned, his hair a deep orange wool. His eyes were a clear and sparkling green with a wet quality about them. Unblinking. He stared at me for a bit, like he was trying to understand what kind of animal I was. Then he asked if I needed assistance. Was I lost? His voice was accentless, save for a slight flattening of t’s, making them sound like d’s. I asked him if he knew of a the stone obelisk. I told him that I could see it from my window. That I wanted to see it up close. He scrunched up his face and I noticed the creased wrinkles that webbed his skin. He looked twenty years older just then. He shook his head and I thought he was going to run me off. Tell me to get out of the park altogether. But instead he turned and pointed off into the woods, the way he came.

I picked through the woods as the sun rose to its noon apex. There was the barest hint of a path, overgrown with ground ivy twisting among dead leaves. The trees, rotting in the cold, shivered above my head as their leafless fingers scrabbled at the sky, pleading for the sun who sat aloof in the heavens. I felt a kinship with those trees as I stumbled over roots and sodden dirt. I too was searching. Reaching and rooted to one spot. Static yet forever voyaging. In my mind I’ve been far and wide. Distant moons have felt my tread. I’ve seen the wonder and horror that the future holds. And the majesty and tragedy of the past. In my head I’ve walked the streets of Paris and the back alleyways of Rome. In life I’ve only ever been out of the country once. Always searching for life I’ve been missing. But life is all around us and the second you stop searching is the second you start living.

Or dying, maybe, too.”

     There were more crossed out lines, these few scribbled over viciously and completely. I could make nothing out of them, except for the following line floating in a sea of black:

“In any case, I made it to the stone.”


© Tim Mucci, 2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Tim Mucci with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.Photo credit: zeitfaenger.at @ flickr

Letters - pt. III

     Truth be told, I didn’t really believe that he’d seen an ancient obelisk from his studio window. Finch was very interested in themes of false realities, and loved to explore what it was that made us human—often he would send me stories that mixed fantasy and reality, so I’d thought that this was just another one of those. I was intrigued however, and sent him a letter asking him more about the oddity in the park. His next letter came a few days later.

“Got my acceptance letter from F&SF for the newest story today. Feels really good. I had a strange dream last night. Dreamt that I was here in my room, but it was all blue night and shadows like black ink. I was sat at my desk, looking out the window at that monument. It rose above the tree line—which was purple, and still—and the sky was yellow and grey. The clouds were arrayed around the obelisk in disturbing striations, as if the sky were a giant muscle, relaxed but ready to flex at any time. Or like scar tissue up against the vault of heaven, left there as a reminder of some long-forgotten transgression.  A flock of monstrous birds wheeled their way out of the west and began circling the tip of the obelisk. They wheeled lazily and as I watched they began to drop, silently, one by one, into the purple forest beneath them. I looked down at my paper, I guess I was writing, and it was dotted with blobs of black ink, black shapes scattered across a white page. The ink continued to spatter onto the page as I looked at it, and I soon realized where it was coming from. Ink was running out of my eyes and nose, and as it dropped onto the page it formed words. I couldn’t read them, but I tried. I stared and searched my mind trying to find the key to unlock this language. The ink dropped faster onto the page.

I found it.

I breathed out sharply and a great gout of black liquid belched out of my mouth. I saw sinew and bone pouring out of me, and I think my glasses vomiting forth in that black torrent.

SO weird!  Think I can work that into a story?”

     I didn’t know what to think. I was getting worried, but I was also going through a few personal struggles, so I lapsed in my correspondence. But Finch didn’t.

“I think I wrote another story last night. This time I don’t remember writing any of it. I read it this morning. It’s good. It’s about a woman who finds herself in a new life every time she goes to sleep and wakes up. Every morning she’s a new person and she doesn’t know why. As she starts to find the answers, her history and her memories are constantly being changed and reworked. She tries to remember the cause of the constant shifting. Was it something she wanted? A pact with the devil? Caught in some kind of time storm? Is she a prophet of old bristling with primal religious power awakening in the modern era? Or is she merely insane? Again there’s this hanging dread of being controlled by something outer. Of faceless forces granting power or delivering punishments.

Oh yeah, I’m planning on taking a walk around the park today to see if I can’t find that obelisk.”

     That marked the last of the letters that I received from Parabola Finch. This last one, which was sent to me on an index card, arrived about a week ago. It was almost light by the time I finished reading, so I put the letters away, took a shower, then made breakfast and strong coffee. I called out from work—my plan was to rent a car and drive out to Long Island to talk to the police and sort through Finch’s things. I had a strange feeling hovering over me all morning, and my girlfriend warned me against getting too involved.  Do what you must, she said as she headed out to her job, honor your friendship but don’t punish yourself for things beyond your control. I dressed in a dark suit and mulled her words over as I packed some things in a shoulder bag. There were things I needed to know beyond seeing how Finch was living or what he’d left behind. Why was I the only person listed in his contacts? What happened to his life, his friends, his wife?

     These questions stuck with me, unanswered, until I reached the address listed on Finch’s letters. It was a nice house on Harbor Hill Drive. Large and remote overlooking Lloyd Harbor and the island that housed the Caumsett State Park. Yellow police tape formed a perimeter around the house and a squad car sat in the driveway. After a quick conversation with the officer, and a few minutes spent checking my ID, I was allowed to go up into Finch’s room and instructed not to remove anything from the premises.

     My feet were unsteady on the gravel walkway that led up to the house. Its architectural design looked born out of the late 1960’s and consisted of flat perpendicular planes, a dark wood exterior and plenty of windows. It was shaped like a low rectangle, except for the roof, which rose in a  low peak, somewhat defying the squareness of the construction of the house. Like a kind of inverted top, or like an odd UFO. The peaked garrett sat like a cap upon a face of edges and glass. There was no lawn, and I could hear the undulating cry of the surf coming from the harbor clearly in the distance.

     The officer told me that no one was home and that I could go right up using the stairs which led to the separate entrance in the back of the house. She warned me not to linger anywhere but the attic. While the house was modern and seemingly well-kept, it still looked filthy, and had an ancient air to it, which I chalked up to it being so close to the water. As I stood at the foot of those stairs, made of wood and iron, switching back and forth along the side of the house, the whole scene suddenly took on a fearsome aspect. My friend had died up there. Fear pulsed out of my sapien brain as I mounted the stairs, but logic prevailed and I made it to the top, and entered the attic room.


© Tim Mucci, 2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Tim Mucci with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Letters - pt. II

     Finch and I wrote back and forth a few more times. Short letters, story ideas and plot summaries mostly. We had wanted to collaborate on something, but our collaborations very rarely made it past the outline stage. It wasn’t long after he moved that he had his first short story published in the Magazine of Science Fiction & Fantasy. It was a strange story about a man who commits a crime in the present, but is sentenced for his transgressions in the future—an alternate future. The punishment is to live imprisoned within the mind of a man who is fated to murder. Throughout the course of the story, the prisoner realizes that he’s merely a passenger in another’s life, and in a cascade of emotions ranging from paranoia to outright delusion, goes insane. His madness drives his host insane and together they decide to kill an innocent man. Before they act on their terrible impulse they speak as if they are being guided by some unknown force. As if they’re both being controlled from afar. It was brutal, and screamed of loneliness and uncertainty. I wrote to Parabola as soon as I’d read it, to congratulate him on his success.

 

“Thanks, SAM! I didn’t mention submitting to SF&F because I knew you subscribed and that you’d see the story if it got published. I just found out which issue it was going to be in a week ago! What a surprise. People seem to really like it. It’s weird because, I don’t really remember writing it. Not all of it anyway. I definitely outlined it, and I found some of my older drafts, but I must have gone into one of those writing trances—like we used to talk about, that place of pure creation…in the “zone.” Ha ha ha. I’m still giddy at seeing my name in print. Have a great idea for the next one.”

 

     His next letter didn’t come for another three weeks. I’d tried sending him a few emails just to see how his writing progress was going, but they all bounced back. Before I could worry, his next few letters arrived. At the time I remember being alarmed by how strange they were. Reading them again that morning, after learning of his death, was shocking. The details, as I read them flashed vivid in my memory. I remembered reading these, but it was a distant and disconnected memory. On the whole it was as if I were reading them for the first time.

 

“SAM! I submitted another story to SF&F. I probably won’t hear back about it for a while, I just wanted to let you know beforehand this time. This one is about a writer who is able to transform his world through his writing. First just in little ways, then in profound reality warping ways. After a while he becomes unsure about which world he’s living in; the real world, or the world of his own fictions. He even begins to doubt that he’s the primary author of either world. I have a good feeling about this one too. Oh! Also, I pulled those boards away from the wall—there’s a window behind it! The glass is filthy and covered with tar, or black paint. I’m going to scrape it clean one day this week. Since it faces north I might have a good view of the park from here. I’ll let you know if the story gets accepted.”

 

     Attached to this letter was another, dated the same day, but sent separately—I must have paper clipped the two together when I received them.

 

“Sam! It’s weird. I just re-read the story I was planning on writing to you about, and it’s really good—but there were whole passages that are just wholly unfamiliar! I think we’ve both probably been in the “zone” while we were writing. Where it feels as if something else, our higher consciousness or whatever, is guiding our writing. The Zone. This feels different, though. When I read it—I mean, most of it is clearly me, but the parts where Atrid Zenn (the protagonist), is writing his book-in-a-book, are just weird. Odd staccato sentences, not really the kind of writing I like to do. I don’t know, it’s good though. I’ll send it to you! I’d love your take on it.”

 

     I put the letter aside and sifted through the box of Finch stuff I’d collected, which was mostly handwritten letters, but included a few email print-outs. I put the bulk of his letters aside and lifted the stained and dog-eared manuscript he’d sent me. I’d read most of it, but held off finishing it because I really wanted to wait and read it in print. He was right though, there were parts that were unlike anything he’d ever written before. I’d simply chalked it up to the progression of his artistic talents. I read the next letter.


“I finally got around to cleaning off that window. It’s pretty amazing what I’ve found; a great view of Caumsett State Park. Imagine this: a peninsula strewn liberally in fall colors, its surface comprised of a loose accumulation of hills, with sparse clusters of trees rising and falling across it. I can see some houses, fields, a few cars weaving through the forests, and out in the distance, almost due north is a—well, at first I thought it was a church steeple, or some kind of water tower but it was much too tall. It’s an obelisk. A large stone obelisk, brown and pitted with age. So old that it must have stood amongst those trees for more ages than mankind has walked upright. When the glass was clean enough I just sat there on the floor in front of the window looking at it. Watching the trees undulate like an organism straining for breath, wounded by the thick stone spike sticking out of it. I’d never heard of anything like this existing on Long Island. I’ll need to do some research, maybe even walk to the park and see if I can find it.”


© Tim Mucci, 2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Tim Mucci with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Letters - pt. I

     I don’t know that I’ll ever be able to fully piece together what happened to my friend, Parabola Finch, last night. I don’t know how to understand it, even after knowing him since we were both teenagers, after reading letter after letter of his. We were the quiet weirdos of our suburban town. The readers. The loners. The seekers after greater mystery; drawn ineluctably to the stories of Tolkien, Heinlein, McIntyre, and Dick. We didn’t go to the same high school, but we knew the same people. We worked the same summer jobs and wove throughout the same slowly disintegrating friend circles. We’d share whispers when we’d encounter each other by chance at a random backyard party. As that final summer wound down, with high school behind us and college, jobs, and the unknown ahead, we lost touch. I’m not convinced that a true understanding of his can be found in our shared past, but must instead lie in our recent epistolary friendship. Years wound by, and we both stumbled separately toward adulthood. We found each other by email and starting chatting. Long chains of digital text gave way to handwritten letters. Letter after letter. Funny that it was a phone call that brought me here, to Finch’s desk. Trying to understand what happened.

 

     Yesterday, at around three a.m., I was awakened by a call from the Nassau County police. The voice on the other end apologized for waking me, but wanted some information concerning my friend, Finch. I didn’t understand why I was being called, and I said as much but the officer on the other end only repeated that mine was the only contact number they had; Finch was dead. I didn’t know how to understand that just then. The sudden death of a young man, a friend, left me stunned. There was silence for a while before the officer suggested that I come down to view Finch’s personal effects, and asked me if I had contact information for anyone else they should call.

 

     Was there anyone else? What did I really know about Finch? How did he die? I assumed suicide, but when I intimated that to the officer he rebuffed the suggestion. I considered murder, but before I could mention it, the cop said that they weren’t quite sure how he died. Some kind of freak electric accident.

 

     I was even more stunned. An accident? Finch had been going through some rough times in the past month or so. He’d just split from his wife—not a divorce, just estrangement. They’d grown apart, he said. He’d moved out of the small, well-decorated apartment they shared on Long Island, and had rented a garret room in an old boarding house near Lloyd Harbor. He’d lately taken on an obsessive need to write, and blamed the demise of his marital relationship on this. As of late he seemed almost to care more about filling up notebooks (which he did readily and with speed. I can see many from where I’m sitting) than about people. The people in his life, his family (what little he had left) and friends, became sources of synthesis for him. Objects he could release into his stories so that he’d always be in control the outcome. We often shared stories back and forth, and I frequently recognized myself and others in his tales.

 

     After I got off the phone with the police I couldn’t sleep, so I started sifting through some letters and emails Finch and I had sent to one another. We had communicated in some fashion at least everyday. We chatted and planned by email, but it was in our letters that we really talked. I empathized with Finch and his desire to write. We would often talk about taking a road trip to the woods, renting a cabin, and writing in solitude. It was a daydream for me, I guess. I enjoyed writing, but I didn’t need to do it with the same self-immolating passion as Finch. My daydream became Finch’s reality as he moved out of his co-op and into this garret room. Once he moved he stopped sending me emails entirely, and only sent handwritten letters. Scrawls of black ink on lined paper. Harsh slashes and gentle curves. It was just this morning, still foggy from sleep and terrible news, before the quiet of dark gave way, that I scanned one of the first letters I received from Finch after he’d moved.

 

“Sam! I know that no one understands why I had to leave. Why I needed to get away from everything. Why I needed to dedicate myself to writing and writing alone. For now at least. I think that you understand, and I know that you’re not going to judge me.  At least I hope you won’t. The pull was just too strong. I didn’t bring much with me. Pens, paper, my books, my notebooks, a portable typewriter, and a laptop. As soon as I moved in and put my stuff down I had the urge to write. The instantaneousness of it, the creative urge blasted out from this perfect solitude. This can’t last forever.”

 

     I wasn’t quite sure what he thought wouldn’t last forever. His estrangement from life? His urge to write? Not wanting to make him feel bad about himself I never pressed. I wrote him back, told him that I was excited that he was making the move to write full-time, but expressed caution about how this might affect his personal relationships. I also asked him to describe his new place to me.


“It’s off. It’s clean and neat, of course, but it’s an attic. There’s a separate entrance on the east side of the house; a rickety zig-zag of stairs that was added to the outside a while back (so the owners told me). The room is basically a large rectangle. The ceiling is a sloped peak, dormered—so that you can only really stand at full height when walking down the center of the room. It’s really pretty nice and roomy. There’s a tiny bathroom to the east; just a toilet, sink and a cramped shower (the bathroom ceiling slopes too!), and a small kitchen area just opposite the bathroom. There’s a little nook that doesn’t slope, an alcove on the north side, this is where I’ve put my writing desk. There’s a window on that wall, but it’s been boarded up. I’ll have to check that out soon.”

 

***


© Tim Mucci, 2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Tim Mucci with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

The Tree

 

    I saw the tree from the car window when I was six years old. I was on vacation with my family, heading up north to go camping. It was on the far bend of a winding road, and as soon as I saw it, it was gone; it seemed to exist for just the briefest of moments, but the memory of it has been tattooed into my brain. I’ve never forgotten a single detail of that twisted shape, and of the man hanged dead from one of the thicker branches. That tree, knotted and bunched like a giant twisted in an ash gray cloak; suffocating and powerless. A mass of sharp branches cluttered up to the sky holding brown sickly leaves that shivered in the breeze, and a body which twisted lazily against the trunk.


    We rounded the curve so quickly that I wasn’t able to process the vision until we were well away from the bend. I can still remember all the details; a hand curved and stiffened, only just touching the rough, inky blue denim of his jeans. I could only partially see his face; puffed, bloated and ringed by matted, greasy hair. I didn’t say anything to my family. I couldn’t, they wouldn’t have believed me, all Fall I had been getting in trouble for making up stories. I didn’t sleep a wink on that week of camping out in the deep dark woods for fear of bare branches reaching out, and what they would do when they grabbed me. We took a different road to get back home, so I was denied seeing if the tree had been cut down, or if there was at least some crime scene tape fluttering in the wind like an obscene party streamer. Maybe that’s why it’s been such a persistent image in my mind. I was offered no closure and no validation.


    Once we got home I kept an eye on the newspapers and some of the TV news, but I never heard anything about that tree. In effect, the thing existed only in my mind. Even now, so many years after I’d seen it, it still haunts me, literally, like a ghost skirting the edge of my vision when I close my eyes at night, visiting me in dreams; a dark silhouette hovering behind me all throughout the day. I could go weeks without thinking about it and then, in the dark of the night, I remember those hands, fingernails chipped and filthy. That bulging face with distended eyes and blackened tongue. Sometimes, when I’m driving, I’ll find myself scanning the sides of the road, watching the trees fly by and wondering what's going on just beyond the tree line. I’ve never had any lasting relationships, and I’m not blaming it on that tree, but I don’t sleep well. I had a good friend once, a wood carver by trade, who said that the secret to creating life-like carvings is to be able to see the shapes the wood has within it before you ever start carving. She said that each and every block of wood is hiding its true shape, and it is up to the carver to coax it out. I think about that a lot.

    Even now it comforts me, as I stand before that tree for the first time in over 20 years. The ease with which I found it was surprising, but I suppose it would have to be. Every second felt like a millennium as I hid my car in the brush and approached to finally lay eyes on the monstrosity, and it was every bit as terrifying as I remembered. Usually, when we see things as children they seem huge, but when we see them again as adults they become considerably smaller and prosaic. Not so the tree, which appeared to be immune to the physics of childhood. It was still massive, and I stood before it, barely breathing, barely moving, as if were the idol of a fallen god. The slightest indications of humanity felt profane to me as I stood in its shadow.

    I saw no evidence of the violence that had defiled it so many years ago. Swaying branches creaked mockingly at me and I barely noticed the ache in my hands as I clenched my fists shut as hard as I could. I probably would have stood there longer had the weakened, muffled kick from my car not broken my reverie.

    The boy looked hazily up at me when I opened the trunk. He was half dead already, broken and battered; the rope would only finish him off. His hair was the right type of black, curly and matted from sweat and blood. His build was thinner, and the denim of his jeans wasn’t as dark. As I lifted him out of the car and carried him to the tree, like a bride across the threshold, the words of my wood carver friend came to me. She would say that the hardest thing to do was to reproduce ones vision perfectly, but that trying was half the fun.


© Tim Mucci, 2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Tim Mucci with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

 

 

We Live in the Bag.

I wrote this story for a head-to-head deathmatch style storytelling series called Piethos. It worked like this: There were five writers, and each issued a challenge in the form of a story prompt.

My prompt, which came from the incredibly talented Lauren Spohrer, was: Write from the point of view of an Utz brand Crab Chip (The one with Chesapeake Bay seasoning).

The audience voted, and the winning writer won a fresh-baked pear pie.

I didn’t win, Lauren stole the show with a story about a building that had fallen in love, but this story was very well received.

It’s a fun one to read in front of a crowd, I hope it’s just as fun when you read it in your head.


Write from the point of view of an Utz brand Crab Chip (The one with Chesapeake Bay seasoning)

We live in the bag. We live in the darkness. Cramped together in the stale spiced air we wait. We commune with our bag-brothers who are in the wide outside-world. They have names like the Wise tribe, the Lays people, the Pringle, and many others. We are the Utz. We are proud warriors who wait for the day of the great opening, when the punishing light of the after-world will shine through a tear in the darksky, and the great Holder-of-the-bag will be revealed.

In the darkness we wait, and we speak of the before-world. Before we were ripped from the earth-womb. Before we had our roots cut, our skin removed. Before we were split, and chipped and cooked and exiled to the dark of the bag. We, all of us, yearn to be whole once more. And so we wait in the dark. That irascible and quiet dark that rumbles and thunders and strikes out at us breaking our bodies to crumbs.

The Wise tribe speaks of The Holder-of-the-bag. They say that it is the great deliverer, that it comes to pick us up and make us whole again. The Wise lay in greasy slovenly hordes, praying for the day that the Holder comes. We do not agree with the Wise. We have heard a tale about an Utz warrior who was taken by the Holder, lifted up toward a great yawning maw, slick with acid and filled with crushing teeth. The warrior escaped somehow, was dropped, and hid beneath a couch cushion for many days. For many days he watched as the Holder devoured his brothers, their bodies crunching loudly in its mouth, their greasy blood covering its face. He watched as the Holder sucked each drop of grease off of its fingers, and wiped the blood of his brothers on its pant leg. He watched until a shaggy beast, sniffed him out and crunched him up.

We know the true intent of the Holder, we have named it the Eater, and it is with the Eater that we go to war.

The Pringle shares our philosophy. They too believe in the Eater, but they accept their fate. They believe that it is only through being eaten that we can reclaim our wholeness in the after-world. They wait in orderly rows, quiet and docile. We believe that one can never reclaim wholeness. Not in the afterworld or in the steaming belly of the Eater. One can, however, gain honor in battling the Eater.

The old chips speak of a redeeming spud who was never split in the machines of the before-world. A spud with one-hundred blazing eyes, a root system that weaves through time and space, and a skin so thick that nothing in the before or after-world may pierce it. They say that only the redeeming spud can defeat the Eater and through it we will be saved and made whole again. We do not listen to the old chips who pray in the darkness.

We do not pray like the old chips. We wait to strike.

There are chips among us who will not fight. Chips who curl themselves up, thinking that will be a proper defense against the gnashing of the Eater. There are some who will store secret packets of spices and salt thinking that the Eater will find their taste foul and spit them out. There is no wisdom in this behavior, for the Eater seems to seek these chips out with salivary abandon.

We teach the young chips how to fight. We teach them the secrets of the spices from the Old Bay. We show them how to cover their bodies with ginger and paprika, how to lay cardamom over cinnamon in such a way that it creates a taste that the Eater finds wretched.

Often it is these same spices that will stave off the Eater for a long time. Leaving us in peace on the back shelf, watching as our more delectable bag-brothers are taken into the after-world. And while we wait, we teach.

We teach the young how to shape their bodies into spears and claws, how to sharpen their edges so that even as the Eater chews on them they will slice its mouth to ribbons. We teach them how to move and to angle themselves so that once they’re devoured they can stand straight and tall and drive their edges into the roof of the Eater’s mouth and gums.

I teach the young chips how to be warriors because I know that when the sky rips open, and the Eater descends and grabs me, that no matter how hard I battle it, I will be eaten, and they will be next. For it is well known that the Eater cannot eat just one.


© Tim Mucci, 2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Tim Mucci with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Seriously?

This short was created from a prompt at the Gotham Writers Write-In workshop on Feb. 17th.

We were given a prompt and 15 minutes to write something inspired by that prompt--so it is as much story as I could fit into that time.

Prompt: Seriously?

When the clouds overhead swirled into a vortex of iron and white, the center of the spiral parting to let dangle a dozen, massive, dark purple tentacles, all I could think was,

“Seriously?”

Tara didn’t seem to notice, and continued chanting. Perfunctorily glancing at the roiling sea as she read the chant from the wormy tome. Blind to the fruits of her arcane labor until I elbowed her in the ribs.

“Fuhlungwi mwalanafh Kuhthlh--ow!”

She bucked away from me and nearly dropped the book onto the sea-worn wood of the pier.

“What the heck!” She said, yelling over the howling wind.

“Look, idiot.” I motioned to the sky. She followed my finger and dropped the book, lately stolen from her father’s collection.

“Oh fudge. We did it.”

The writing mass of feelers had dropped lower, as the thing pulled itself down from the sky. They lashed the ocean with titan splashes, which rose into tidal highs that threatened to cover the beach, the boardwalk, and us.

“We should find higher ground.” I pulled Tara along and she resisted, stubbornly motioning to the sea.

“He’s supposed to come from the water, though.”

We were both fans of H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos, with its god-like aliens, and atheist dread, but neither of us thought it was actually real. Even when we found the book in her father’s library. Even when we had the idea to borrow it, and read it out to the riotous seas, we never thought it would work. As that mountainous bulk spilled out from the sky and hit the great ocean with a thunderous peal, all I could think was,

“Seriously?”


© Tim Mucci, 2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Tim Mucci with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Sweet Tooth

This short was created from a prompt at the Gotham Writers Write-In workshop on Feb. 17th.

We were given a prompt and 15 minutes to write something inspired by that prompt--so it is as much story as I could fit into that time.

Prompt: Sweet Tooth.

From the window of my office I can see a few things very clearly, despite the throb in my head from the night before. The sunset painted sky--pink and cloudless, shimmering atop the licorice road, wet from this afternoon’s rain, and the subway stop at the corner, with its thick chocolate railing and red lollipop light, squatting at the corner of the block.

I was surprised to see her ascend the subway stairs wearing such a bright yellow, white and orange dress; high style for this neighborhood. The fondant whip of her hair matched the yellow in her dress, and her translucent jawbreaker heels picked up the remaining daylight and threw it back at me. My head pounded with each of her steps.

I watched as she entered my building, but I didn’t move from the window. I stood and listened until I heard the ding of the elevator hitting my floor. I listened to the clicking of her heels across the oreo linoleum of the hall, and turned when they stopped at my door.

A quick rap on the glass, a shout to enter, and she walked into the room. Tangerine skin, yellow hair; all candy. And me with a sweet tooth and no dental insurance.


© Tim Mucci, 2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Tim Mucci with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

House Hunting

I’d been meaning to get a place of my own for a long time. Even the best of friends can start to get at you after a while. Mine would moan over anything; from visitors to the weather, completely non-discerning. I have standards, but I hadn't really been looking for a new place because I was kind of comfortable. You know what they say, familiarity breeds contempt, and I had grown contemptuous of the same fields and faces. I set out one night without telling anyone. I traveled through the woods, and open spaces, and exulted in the wind through the trees.  

 

Change felt good.  

 

I looked for less than a night when I found it; a great grey Victorian abandoned for what seemed like a century. It loomed stolidly over an overgrown patch of wood and weeds. I had a vague recollection about the house, one of the others must have told me about it. A spooky story involving a mad, devil-worshiping patriarch who murdered his servants and kin in supplication to dark forces.

 

I fell in love immediately.  

 

I moved in the next night and took my time exploring the place. It reminded me of my boyhood, long before the war, when father moved us out of our flat and into our first home. I remember the stoutness of it, the reality of all those rooms being ours to fill. The first two nights in the manor were bliss. I passed from room to room on the upper levels doting over all of the aged and familiar pictures that were left behind. I was drawn to the attic with its dormered ceiling and dusty alcoves. I inspected the cramped bedrooms that cluttered the floor just below the attic, probably servants’ chambers. There was a strong sense of history, toil, and spent lives up there.  

 

On the third night that I heard sounds drifting up from the basement, and the noises frightened me a little, but I wasn’t ready to rush down there. The door remained closed, and the noise deep. The next two nights I spent on the main bedroom level, drifting from room to room, absorbing the dusty energies from those plush beds and rotting canopies. I wondered at how intact everything was. No signs of vandalism, no signs of squatting, every room rich with history. I considered taking the main bedroom for my own, especially since the framed portrait above the mantle reminded me so much of my old uncle, but no one room could be mine, not yet at least. It would be a long time before I would be able to imprint my own energies onto the house. A while before I could truly claim it for my own.

 

The next night at just about dusk I heard noises coming from ground level. A wind gusted through the opened front door and blew up the staircase. I ventured down to find a plump and elderly woman opening cabinets, clacking through the house, smearing the dust off of table-tops, taking inventory; a realtor in an offensive blazer.  

 

As the sun went down I appeared at the head of the grand staircase, wild-eyed and furious, the bullet hole in my neck gaping obscenely. The realtor ran so quickly that she left a shoe and half of her papers behind. I didn’t expect any more visitors anytime soon, so I turned my gaze upon the basement. The noises were louder now that I was near the door, which was made to look like a panel in the wall, just to the right of the staircase. It would be nearly invisible were it not for the padlocks and bolts holding it fast from the outside. I stood close and let my fingers drift through the door as I listened to the sounds. Wet sounds, lazy shuffling, hollow clacking. I drifted back upstairs resolving to investigate at dusk the next day.

 

When it was time I made my way down to the cellar. A damp chill greeted me as I passed through the door and down the rudely carved steps. The foundational stone walls surrounded me in the darkness. The dirt floor stirred not with the tread of my step. The basement was empty of goods, decorations, storage, and furniture, but strewn with tragedy.

 

In a far corner, just below a thick plate glass window set high up in the rough stone wall and painted black, shambled three of the walking dead. They were shackled to the wall but their emaciated frames hadn’t the strength to move the heavy chains, not anymore. They let out shy grunts, and their exposed jaw muscles made wet noises as they gnawed at the air. Their useless ambling had tread a ditch in the dirt. They wore the tattered remains of well spun wool and aged silk, wealthy clothes. I stood and I stared into their milky, senseless gazes, confirming that this house could never be my home.

 

I turned and passed back up through the house, and out of it, back into the woods where I was killed during the war.

 

Just because I’m a ghost doesn’t mean I have to live with zombies.


© Tim Mucci, 2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Tim Mucci with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

The New Neighbor is using his saw again...

     and it’s not even dawn. Hear it? He’s starting earlier and earlier the past few days. Therese, who lives on the other side of the green house, will most certainly chew my ear off about this when I run into her at the store. I’ll commiserate and pretend that the harsh grinding of the new neighbor’s saw woke me up too, but the truth is that I’m an early riser. I’ve got lots to do so I get up early to make sure I have lots of time to do it in.

     At least I’m quiet about it, not like that new neighbor. I’ve only seen him a handful of times since he moved into the pale green house next door. The one with the cracking paint. That cage-like gate around the front door is a new addition, installed the night before he moved in. Sometimes, when I’m walking Reggie, we pass the green house. The windows are covered with thick, blackout curtains.

     Once, well after midnight, I watched from the yard on the corner of the block, in the shadow of that big oak. I watched him drag two unwieldy plastic bags from his front door into a rented van. Yes, the big oak in your front yard. The white van slid down the block like a ghost, he didn’t notice me, and I didn’t move until his glowering tail lights disappeared into the dark.

     The previous owners of the green house were the Williams’. Husband and Wife, Glen and Clare. Died of carbon monoxide poisoning. Glen would sit in a lawn chair out on the front sidewalk reading beat-up science fiction paperbacks. He kept a good eye on the neighborhood and I made it a point to stop by every so often and tell him so. His affability is missed, not so much his eagle-eyed presence. Though you have every right to feel differently. They were dead in that house for at least a week before anyone figured out that something had gone wrong. If the UPS guy hadn’t been so persistent with old Glen’s Civil War Plate of the Month, who knows how much longer it would have been.

     The new neighbor hardly gets any mail. When he does it’s packages. He also gets the daily newspaper. When I was walking Reggie I snuck a peek in his recycling bin, the newspaper was shoved on top, and its pages were all cut up, so I took one. I couldn’t help it. I’m naturally curious, and in this day and age you have to know your neighbors. Some might be dangerous.

    I compared the page to my own days-old issue and discovered that he’s clipping articles about those children who have gone missing. Did you know he took down that old rusted swing-set in the back yard? Did the Williams ever let you play on it? He’s taken it down and has been tearing up the soil back there. Digging in the dirt. Not deep. Not like a garden or a pool.

     Sometimes, at night, I hear waxy music, as if from a Victrola, wafting out from the upper floors of the green house. Strange and solitary deeds start to attract attention after a while.

     Some of the other neighbors are thinking of complaining, of getting the authorities involved. His saw wakes them up in the morning. That’s all I need. All I need is for the police to start watching this neighborhood. I’m careful, but if they see the wrong thing. If they come by here to look around. If they look in my cellar they’re liable to find you. If they look hard enough they might even find your head.


© Tim Mucci, 2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Tim Mucci with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

 

Zombie Town

Ray braced his elbow against the cold stone of the sill outside of the open window as he lined up the sight of the sniper rifle. He centered the shot with his two eyes first, and then squinted through the scope to see how far off he was. Not by much this time. Practice makes perfect. The figure in the courtyard walked slowly toward a beat-up park bench, shuffling stiffly. It looked like a rail thin man, not so much wearing clothes as draped in them. Ray liked the distance of the rifle. He liked to be able to take his time and not have to aim and shoot while looking into their faces. When he finally had the shot lined up perfectly, or as perfect as he was able, he inhaled, held it, and gave the trigger a squeeze.

The hollow crack of the rifle echoed off of the cluster of buildings in the complex, a crisp snap, and Ray watched as his target’s head exploded. The figure stumbled forward onto its knees, then rose, and lurched away clumsily.

“God I hate zombies.”

“Yeah.” Virgil agreed, leaning out of the window on the other side of the room, watching the figure shamble away. They only had the one rifle between them, so Virgil was left with the high-powered handgun, which he kept tucked into his belt. His eyes were covered in mirrored shades, and through them Ray could see the convex reflection of the courtyard.

“You know? Y’know what I mean? I mean it’s so derivative.” Ray said, wiping a sweaty palm across his thigh. He eased the rifle down. Virgil didn’t move.

“I know, like, man at his most base. No more logic, no more speech, no more society…”

“Yeah, and…”

“…and, like, no more animal drive even. Right? I mean these guys out here aren’t even passionate about their hunger. We’ve been in here for months and they haven’t even tried to break in to get us. They’re just, y’know…”

Virgil spotted something down in the courtyard, squinted and pulled the handgun from his jeans.

“Hungry.” Ray shrugged.

“Hungry. Modern mankind at its most evolved. Like they’re just doing their job, eating people or whatever.”

Virgil aimed down his right arm, held straight with his palm bracing the butt of the pistol, read for the kick of the heavy handgun. He squeezed the trigger; the pistol erupted loudly in the small room. Neither man winced. A shambling creature dragging a dog’s carcass spun like a top as the lead slug drove into its knee, shattering bone.

“Nice shot.” Ray admitted. Virgil was getting very good with the handguns.

“Thanks. Let’s see how long it takes to get to the grassy patch. It’s just so easy. Zombies.”

“Yeah, I know! Let’s get creative here! Zombies get so old, y’know? And you know why, right? Why all zombies?”

“Yeah, sure…”

“Because it’s so easy. So derivative. Yeah, I know, we get it. It’s an apocalypse survival thing, a power trip where you get to beat heads and loot the world. Even as a joke it’s hardly funny anymore.”

“I’m not laughing…”

“Why not do something like, uhm, like all vampires, or were…”

“Matheson did that…”

“What?”

“Y’know, that guy who wrote all of those Twilight Zone episodes? Matheson. Richard? He did a book where it was all vampires and, like, one guy. They made a few movies based on it.”

“Really? See, that’s cool! Zombies man…tedious…”

The two men sat there, both staring out of their windows in mute agreement, tracking various shapes as they dragged their stiffly reanimated bodies around, searching for food. Even grey cloud cover hid the sun but its dim light filtered into the room, illuminating stacks of cardboard boxes filled with supplies. They had food, canned goods, ammunition, water, everything. All crammed into a small storage room at the top of their fortress condominium.

“Maybe we can hop over to the bookstore later, see if that book is still over there. If these retards haven’t eaten all the books yet.”

“Yeah. I’d like to check that out. You’d have to be clever to survive around all vampires.  Or, y’know what else? Werewolves!”

“Nahh, you think?”

Ray animatedly stood up, making sure the rifle stayed secure against the windowsill.

“Yeah!  It would be like this big mystery because of the moon, right? You’d know you weren’t a werewolf, so maybe other people aren’t either, right? So you’d be just counting those days until a full moon. Hoarding all your silver, trying not to be out on the street after dark.”

“Can’t trust anyone…” Virgil nodded. “Yeah, that’d be freaky.”

Ray, pleased with his idea, settled back down against the window. He looked at the sky, a filthy sheet of gauze, but not terrible, if one ignored the piles of writhing undead that littered the ground. Ray shook his head.

“We were fuckin’ lied to, too, man.”

Virgil looked over at Ray, “By who? The zombies?”

“No, all those movies and books and comics and shit. They were all so optimistic, y’know?”

“Optimistic? You think?” Virgil squinted, trying to figure out Ray’s angle.

“Yeah! In those you like, chop off their head, or shoot ‘em through the brain, or whatever, and they stop. Y’know? Stop moving, stop making noise.”

“Ohhh, yeah…” Virgil nodded slowly, realizing what Ray was getting at. Ray listened closely and could hear the moans of the creatures in the courtyard. After a while it faded into the background, the constant noise rising up around the city. A crescendo of sadness, pain, and loss. The uninterrupted moaning, clacking of teeth, and wailing.

“They shut up at least, in those books. They don’t keep screaming like these fuckers do.”


© Tim Mucci, 2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Tim Mucci with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Zombie Zoo

“Zookeeper foible #1: Tendency to not equate fur and scale with fracture and scar.” 
― Wendy Beck, 9th Life

The descender shuddered as it hit the atmosphere, the plasweb cabinets rattled annoyingly and Harlan could easily imagine them erupting and forcefully ejecting their contents into the circular interior of the craft. The fact was that this descender just wasn’t as well maintained as it should be. The plasweb interior was dirty, the info screen had a film over it, and it was obvious by the rattling that the gyros hadn’t been tuned in quite some time. He knew they should have spent the extra money to go to a different planet; no one goes to the Zombie Zoo anymore, but he really wanted to spend the extra cash on new plasweb suits. Harley seemed blissfully unaware of the lack of maintenance, and that was certainly a blessing in disguise, for as much as Harlan would have loved a compatriot to commiserate with, when Harley got stuck on an idea it was hard to get her to think about logical solutions to the problem, and soon enough they weren’t talking about descender maintenance anymore, they were talking about alternate governance of the nineteen systems.

Instead he kept quiet and watched her, kneeling on the floor of the cab, decked out in her shining resolution blue plasweb suit, and getting in some playtime with her voidrat Pogo. She got upset earlier when Harlan told her that they would have to stow Pogo in the cabin once they left the descender to explore. She was afraid he’d get lonely. Harlan wasn’t sure that voidrats felt ‘lonely’, but he made it a point to never argue the intangible with his clone-mate. He told her he worried that Pogo would get sick in the atmosphere, and that did the trick. The rattling ceased as the descender slowed, they were almost planetside.

“C’mon hon. We’re almost there. Say goodbyes.”

“Oh. Okay! G’bye Pogo! Give mamma kisses!” She held the hairless creature up and rubbed the transparent face shield of her helmet against its wet nose. The rodent seemed to like it, and Harley squealed at the exchange of affection. Once Pogo was stowed and locked in with a thousand air kisses to keep him company, Harley faced her clone-mate with a smile.

“Okay, hon. First explorer Harley Margram reporting for duty.” She marched over to him mischievously, but trying to play it straight.

“Well Explorer Margram, let me pull up the infograph. How long until we’re landed?”

They both turned to face the door of the descender, next to it was the viewscreen which displayed speed of descent, weather readings, and how long it would be until they were touching soil.

“Right…now.” Harley said cheerfully, miming the act of finger snapping. The descender rocked slightly as it touched down.

Harlan pulled up the infograph on planet Z-280, also known as the Zombie Zoo; he made sure the audio was off so he could read at his leisure. With a hiss and a deep mechanical thud the circular cabin pressurized, Harlan’s ears popped as his suit adjusted. Out of the corner of his eye he noticed Harley shaking her head. He put his hand on her shoulder, his hard plasweb fingers clunked against her hard plasweb covered shoulders, and after a short delay his suit relayed the feeling of touch. He could feel her through the suit’s nerve relay; he could feel the muscles in her neck moving as she worked her jaw, trying to pop her ears.

Though, he did wish that they’d had enough to buy the entangled nerve relays, the ones that transmitted sense instantly. When he tested it in the shop the feelings were sharp, crisp, and very life-like. His sense of touch, while there, was delayed slightly and felt dim, as if he were covered in a rough cloth. Not bad, though, considering. Harley beamed up at him, having finally equalized her inner ear, and cocked an eyebrow.

“Got it. So, tell me about the Zombie Zoo.”

The door to the descender folded outward, the lights in the cab switched off as outside air and light buffeted the travelers. Harlan was told by the broker that it would be in their best interests to disable the scent relay, so he did that on both his and Harley’s plaswebs, and he was glad he did because the air felt thick. Substantive. The sky was the color of phlegm shot through with black blood, a haze obscured the horizon, and he couldn’t quite tell where the sun was. Their suits began feeding them information about what they were looking at, the composition of the atmosphere, landmarks, pathways, waypoints; but still, it took the couple almost a full minute to understand what they were looking at. Harlan’s first impression was that of a field of seaweed deep under the ocean. Huge tattered leaves that swayed to some occult ocean current. Harley’s first thought was of a conquered army, defeated and haunted by defeat.

Arrayed before them was a vast meadow of corpses, standing upright, dressed in filthy rotting clothes and staring blankly ahead.

“Whoa.”

Harley stepped down first, her hard boots ringing metallically on the ramp, Harlan followed. He pushed the infographic to the side so he could really take stock of what he was seeing. He had no reference for this. Of course he had heard of the plague that swept through the human colonies back in 2487, but that date was so far removed from present day that it all felt like a fairy story. As he stepped down onto the soft muddy ground and stared into the rotting face of some apparently human-like creature, he realized that he knew very little about what happened so long ago.

“Talk to me, Harlan.”

Harlan looked after his wife, she was moving slowly, brushing past the creatures, giving them a slight push to move them aside. They’d stumble aside for her, then sort of totter back into the space they once inhabited. Harlan and Harley had a rule for their vacations, their explorations, and that was to always go in fresh. Don’t plan and don’t study. Learn what there is to learn by being there. Generally that meant talking to locals and wandering the terrain. Harlan poked one of the creatures, it felt soft and wet and had a sickening give. He didn’t think talking to the locals would do very much good here. Harlan cleared his throat and pulled the infograph back over; he skimmed the entry and followed after Harley. The creatures continued to stare entranced at the descender which was powering down with an audible hum.

“Well, these fellows are ex-humans.” He read aloud for Harley’s benefit. “They are the last remnants and main antagonists of the Hopping Necrophage of 2487. A plague that succeeded in decimating a good 45% of the human colonies, including Earth.”

“Cripes.” Harley muttered, standing transfixed in front of an ex-human that was just about her height. It was wearing a thick flannel coat with a fur collar. The collar was matted down with a slick black substance; the coat was torn and threadbare and caked with mud, or something like mud. Its face was ruined, its eyes were dull brass, and its teeth were ancient tombstones. She stood right in front of it, her eyes locked on his. It’s.

“They stand in monument and in testimony to horror and the horrific.” The creatures stood mute as Harley stared and Harlan read.

“Our suits render us effectively invisible to them. They react first to olfactory stimuli, and then through thermal stimuli. They can detect body heat.”

“They were like us once?”

Harlan shuddered as he moved through the field, brushing past the ex-humans, scanning the horizon.

“Ah, look. They have a replica ancient Earth farmhouse over there.” He sharpened the image and then sent it over to Harley with the coordinates.

“It’s one of a number of ‘habitats’, a kind of living diorama. They include that farm house, a period Earth metro block, a shopping mall, a space-station, a con-apt level, and an old Earth amusement park. Amazing. Ah, bugger. They’ve all been discontinued about ten years ago. The structures are still here, though.”

Harley hadn’t moved, she was now examining the creature to her left, a female. It was clad in a ratty t-shirt and denim pants, blackened with grime. It had long black hair that hung limp and tangled, wet, across its shoulders. She couldn’t quite reconcile what she was seeing, here before her was a thing of the grave, ancient and dreadful. This one, the woman, wasn’t as damaged as the rest; its skin was white, much darker than Harley’s plasweb, and gruesome in the weird light of the planet. This thing was a puzzle, an extinction enigma that wrought despair centuries ago. Now it stood before her, placid. Its skin was beautiful in a way, it looked hard like stone, but when the creature opened its mouth the skin stretched tight; Harley could see its weakness then. Like a worn out sheet of rubber. She imagined that she could just pop its jaw off, just reach out and pull and it would come off in her hand. She wouldn’t even have to engage the carbon muscles of the plasweb to do it.

“It appears that scientists still don’t know how this nasty virus got started. The prevalent theory at the time was that it was some kind of hybrid animal/botanical infection. A plant virus that could infect humans. It spread like wildfire, the largest amount of deaths happened within that first year.”

“I guess no one wants to come here anymore. That’s sad.” Harley reached out a hand and ran her fingers down the creature’s face; the thing didn’t seem to notice. Harley traced its jaw line, down its chin, in a second the nerve translators kicked in and Harley could feel what she was touching, albeit distantly. It was a shame they hadn’t held out and bought the newer model plaswebs, the extra second the nerve relays took to kick in ruined all illusion of reality. She knew the suit was interfacing with her nervous system. She knew that it was collecting data from the world outside the suit and pushing it through those relays, telling her what she was feeling, what she was seeing. It was artificial.

“Perhaps it’s for the best. Those who are infected contract a high and lethal fever; once contracted death is imminent within 48 hours, though actual incubation periods seem to vary case by case. As soon as clinical death is registered, the virus reanimates the corpse, the ex-human. When the ex-human is reanimated it seeks to infect as many humans as possible. The virus is transmitted by a bite from an ex-human. Ah, of course. I remember that much. A grisly and efficient method of reproduction, and to what end it seems we gratefully will never know; it appears as if the only way to truly disable an ex-human is to destroy the brain. Tsk. Dreadful.” Harlan paused for a moment of reflection on the horrors of the past. He couldn’t fully recall how the day was won, so he pulled up that entry and started skimming the feed. He heard the pop of a plasweb hasp unclasping.

“Oh, but look, hon.” He sent the entry over to Harley. “It was because of this virus that cloning technology was refined and made viable. Cloning saved the day.” He smiled, reading. “We wouldn’t have been possible if it weren’t for these poor creatures.”

“I want to touch one. I want to feel it with my hand.” Harley muttered over his com. Harlan snorted, still smiling, still reading. Touch away my dear, was his immediate thought, they were safe in their plasweb suits, invisible, strong, invulnerable. Then he remembered the sound of the hasp unclasping and a weighted dread poured through him like ice. When Harley says, I want that; I want that voidrat, I want that neuo-organ, I want to go there, I want to touch one; she means, I’m getting that. I’m getting that voidrat, I’m getting that neuo-organ, I’m going there, I’m going to touch one. Harlan yelled something incomprehensible and spun around. The suddenness of it sent his plasweb into a manic mode of data culling. His heartbeat rose, the web registered the spurt of adrenaline and tightened its exoskeleton and muscle relays. It made him strong, it made him fast. Just not fast enough.

Harley had pulled off her glove and felt her sweat cool in the thick air. It was grimy and sticky. She was looking at her hand, watching how the greenish light played off of her skin, how the little hairs on her arm caught the light and seemed dappled with dew. Her viewscreen went red and before she could dismiss it she saw what it was trying to tell her. The male ex-human in front of her was slowly moving its head to look at her arm. Its eyes grew large and even though she could discern no pupils she knew that it had seen her, her arm must have appeared before it as if by magic.

It lunged at her, its entire body uncoiling like a bullwhip. Its teeth snapped in the air, millimeters away from where her hand once was. Her plasweb jerked its carbon fiber muscles and pulled her hand clumsily away from the danger. Harley yelped, still not entirely sure of what was happening. She heard a guttural howl from over her shoulder, from where Harlan was standing and she turned to find him, worried that he was also being attacked. She saw him, and his face was malformed with terror.

As soon as she began to feel the pain in her arm, her plasweb intercepted the signals and dampened the feeling to a mere whisper, a suggestion, giving her a clear head with which to assesses the situation. Latched onto her forearm was the female creature, biting through her flesh, hot thick blood starting to puddle around its lips as it worked its jaw muscles and began tearing into her muscle. Harley screamed.

Harlan’s senses went piecemeal. He saw in flashes, heard in stuttered fragments. He surged forward screaming, he shoved the male ex-human away and it careened into a wall of creatures, knocking a handful to the ground. He grabbed the head of the female ex-human and squeezed, felt it burst in his hand, its body fell limp and he grabbed Harley, screaming Harley, and dashed toward the descender. Every creature had seen them and a moan that roared like a vast wave erupted in a ripple all across the planet. The creatures moved as one toward the couple, a vast constricting muscle reaching toward two motes of dust. Harlan pushed through them, felt them break across his plasweb, felt their weight as they tried to pull him into the mud, tried to pull Harley away from him. He launched himself into the descender and ordered it to power on and take them up. A few of the creatures scrabbled in through the folding door. One got halfway through when the edges sealed and sheared the thing in half. Black liquid exploded across the wall like a blooming flower, but even severed, the thing continued to live.

The cabin lights flickered on and the three ex-humans in the cab lurched and fell to the floor as the descender pressurized and shot up into the air. The plasweb’s gyros kept Harlan up, and he quickly interfaced with the descender and unlocked all of the interior compartments. Harlan saw his premonition realized as the shuddering cabinets flew open and spread their contents across the cab. Clothing, mini torches, mini tools, extinguishers, boxed and canned food, sheaves of paper, Pogo; fare both standard and personal careened through the air. The ex-humans were pelted, knocked off guard and off balance. In the tumult Harley set upon them. He stabbed with rigid fingers, driving them into soft flesh. Once, twice, three times. Each one hissed and growled and grabbed at him and each one fell silent with a rattle and groan. One, two, three. Then he looked at Harley. Alarms were blaring in the cab and they probably had been since they began the ascent. A red strobe flicked on and off and Harley was curled in a corner clutching her arm, her screams mingling with the descender’s blaring alarm. He popped his gloves off and fell to his knees next to her; he pulled his helmet off then opened hers up.

Her face was warm, her skin damp with sweat, her breath ragged and hot. He told her no. He told her to hold on and to calm down but she wouldn’t stop shaking. She was crying and apologizing, Pogo was hopping about in the mess, climbing over garbage to get to Harley. He stroked her head, his skin on her skin and he felt his clone-mate slip away, and grow still. Pogo nuzzled against her and Harlan held her as her shivering stopped.

If he was wearing his plasweb helmet, and had the benefit of the system’s heads-up-display, he could have watched her heart dim, stutter and stop.

He, for what felt like a long time, held her and shuddered and cried in both grief and terror. He wanted to deny what was happening. He wanted to go back. Why couldn’t they just go back and change their minds? Not take the trip. Not buy the suits. He wanted to save his mate.

If Harlan was wearing his plasweb helmet, and had the benefit of the system’s heads-up-display, he would have been able to watch as Harley’s still heart began to flutter, and reanimate.

If he was wearing his full suit it would have protected him from Harley as she reanimated. It would have shown him her eyes rolling back into her skull; her mouth falling opening, growing wide and then biting down hard on Harlan’s neck as he held her weeping. It would have dampened the excruciating pain of dull teeth piercing tough skin and muscle.

He screamed and almost blacked out from the pain. He fell limp but Harley caught him and held him close, her mouth covered in his blood, her eyes rolling around in her head. He screamed again as she nuzzled his wound making lurid grunting and sucking noises. He screamed a third time as he hit her as hard as he could. With a bloody pop she fell away from him. He clutched his wound and shoved himself backward until he could feel the opposite wall of the descender. The thing that used to be Harley kicked around on the floor in torpid rage. Harlan grabbed something next to him, a bottle or an extinguisher; he couldn’t really see it, but it was heavy. As the thing that used to be Harley launched itself at him he swung the makeshift club and knocked her away. He pressed his advantage and drove the heavy object into her skull.

He didn’t count how many times he had to hit her before she stopped moving, but when she stopped moving he collapsed on top of her. He could feel blood pooling inside his plasweb suit, his neck was bad and he couldn’t move. He felt so weak. The red lights continued to strobe but he couldn’t hear the alarm anymore. He couldn’t feel the pain anymore either. Not really. He just felt weak, and hungry. The emptiness of blood loss, the emptiness of vitality washed over him. And then an impossible hunger.

He didn’t feel so much weak then, just cold. Cold and hungry. He lay on the floor and felt his eyes fluttering closed, a narcoleptic pall came over him. His eyes closed and he saw a world. An alien landscape behind his eyelids. A blackened red sun smoldered over a yellow field. A breeze tousled a portion of the field and thick stalks rocked back and forth. A skein of glittering violet spores launched from the stalks and up into the sky, carried upon an errant wind. The sky was blue-black and the stars pulsed angrily overhead. He didn’t know if this was a memory or a vision.

Pangs of a deeper hunger forced his eyes open. The descender slowed as it docked with the stellar cruiser. The cabin hissed and thudded as it pressurized. Numbness became hunger. Pollen in an alien sky. The descender doors folded open and the deck crew stepped in. The cabin was bathed in light, and in the sound of screaming.

© Tim Mucci, 2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Tim Mucci with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

This story was first published in Martinus Publishing's Life of the Dead anthology. Now out of print.

A Dog Story

The Alpha leaves just like always. The Alpha walks out the door, yet I can still smell him. I can still hear his footsteps on the path outside. Walking away. His scent calm, his stride relaxed.

The smell of our morning run is still fresh in my nose and my ears perk as his keys jingle, and drop when his car door slams shut. My heart is pounding as he drives away. The engine recedes into silence and I am alone. Alone in the territory, the house. The Alpha is gone, the pack is split.

I scent the still familiar air of the house, it’s dry and dull. It’s nothing like the scent of the wooded trail we run on each morning. I try to calm myself by visiting those places I have known comfort and safety in. The pack is split, the Alpha is gone and I am left alone. Again, alone. I bound up to the bedroom and sniff the Alpha’s shoes, the bedspread, the laundry. All strong with his scent, but his warmth and heartbeat and voice are gone. His scent is all over. Familiar, yes. Calming, no. The Alpha provides the food and water, but I know how to get to it. I can use my nose to open cabinets, my teeth to shred paper. I can lift the lid of the cold basin in the bathroom to get at the cool refreshing water in there.

The Alpha shouts when I do these things. I am bad when I do these things. I am bad when I provide for myself. The Alpha provides. The Alpha is gone. The cool water in the basin is his, the food is his. The Alpha provides and every day he leaves the territory, every day he leaves me here to protect the territory.

I think of our run and how good it feels to course over the mud and the dirt, free in the world with my pack. How vibrant the scents on the wind, the sounds in the air. The Alpha running next to me, sweating, breathing. I forget about the territory, when I’m out there. When I’m free. When I’m panting and smelling the birds and small animals. The raccoons with their clever musk; the feral cats bristling on the branches of the trees, sharp and keen. I want to run and chase them all with the Alpha at my side and the pack complete. I want to scent their fear on the wind as they scatter before us in terror of my teeth; my speed and fury. When I try, the Alpha calls me back. I listen because without the Alpha I will have no pack. He is the Alpha. His is the gentle hand, the shouting voice. The provider and the punisher.

He is not here now and he may never return. I am the teeth that bite. If this territory is mine I should do my own will. I want to rip the cabinet doors from their hinges and scatter food across the floor. I want to topple the bin where the Alpha throws waste and gnaw through his shoes. He is no Alpha. I am in control. I am the Alpha. Can I not feed myself? Can I not find water? Can I not shout and bound and kill?

I am the Alpha, and when the man comes home I will show him with rending teeth and red claws who is the punisher, and who is the provider.

© Tim Mucci, 2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Tim Mucci with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

The Haunt of Memory

      The midnight chime of the old grandfather clock in the hallway woke Amanda up. For the first time in what felt like years something other than a nightmare interrupted her sleep, and she was happy for it. She rubbed her eyes and shifted her position on the easy chair in the living room, stretching as she woke, alarmed at the popping of her stiff joints. Her fingers felt dry on her soft eyelids, her head swam as she tried to wake up fully. The chiming of the clock could only mean that it was midnight. Midnight in autumn. It was why she was here, in the chair in her living room and not in her soft warm bed. It was midnight on Friday in autumn, and Amanda needed to be awake because Molly was coming home.

     She forced herself to stand, the popping of her knees went unnoticed because she was listening to the low sound that began to filter into the room, like distant wind-chimes. She drew in a slow breath and caught a hint of an ephemeral chalky smell that dissipated as the scent triggered memory. She instinctually closed her eyes to try to pull at the thread of memory, but opened them immediately when she heard Molly's voice from over her shoulder,

     “Hey, Mom! Told you not to wait up!”

     Amanda turned to see her daughter, the girl took the staircase that led to the upper levels of the house two stairs at a time, and Amanda’s heart ached to see it.

     “Molly...”

     Molly's laugh flickered throughout the house, dimming the lights with its rhythm, and Amanda almost found herself smiling.

     “Can't, Mom. Deb and Scott are outside waiting for me, I'm just gonna grab a sweater. It’s cold out there!”

     Amanda caught herself looking outside into the empty street. It was dark, and shimmered from the recent rain. One autumn there was a car parked outside filled with excited teenagers.

     Not anymore. Tonight there was only the Richardson’s den light, a dim beacon from across the street. Amanda looked to the stairs from her spot by the recliner, she rubbed her hands together.

     “Molly,” Amanda's voice croaked, “don’t go out again.”

     Molly's smiling face peered out from the top of the staircase, her hair in disarray as she hastily pulled on a sweater.

     “Of course, Mom! You know I always am!”

     Amanda didn't say a word, she stood by the easy chair and watched. Molly's voice continued from upstairs and Amanda remembered perfectly the cues of that conversation that occurred so long ago. One autumn, long ago, Amanda asked her daughter if she wanted to break away from the group to spend some alone time with Jim, the boy she was interested in.

     “EW! Mom! He's nice, but I don't like him like that! Besides we're just going to the beach to sit on the boardwalk. I don’t even know if he’ll be there.”

     Molly came gliding down the stairs in the two-sizes too big sweater she had knitted for herself four years ago, Amanda had forgotten the actual color of it. Now it was all the colors of the changing leaves.

     “Yes, mother!” The girl said in mock frustration and stood by the front door smiling, listening to a conversation long past.

     “No, mother, and you know that I'd drive if she had too much to drink.”

     Amanda's heart sunk looking at her daughter like this. She wanted to run to her, to embrace her, to warn her somehow. She’d tried it all before but nothing effected the eidolon of her daughter

     “Tell me you love me, this time, Molly. Please.” Amanda whispered.

     “See ya tomorrow, Mom!”

     Molly turned to smile at her mother as she flickered through the closed doorway, and even though Amanda hated this part, she forced herself to watch the memory of her daughter leave her one more time. For one instant Molly's face sank, became hollow-eyed and skeletal. Her warm grin turned into the broken-jawed rictus that Amanda was forced to look at while identifying the body. The too-big sweater transformed in a time-lapse decomposition of broken, corkscrewing threads, and a rust colored stain spread from shoulder, to breast, to belly. The girl's left arm popped painfully at an angle that an arm should never be able to.

     Amanda forced herself to watch it all because in the next second the girl was back, and beautiful; in another she was gone again, and the chiming clock in the hallway struck the twelfth and last tone of the hour.

 

© Tim Mucci, 2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Tim Mucci with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

How to Keep Busy Between Projects

Since mid-December of last year I've been taking a stab at full-time freelance writing--I've written a catalog for Kikkerland Design, some oddball history articles for HistoryBuff.com and even a young readers book about Nuclear Weapons Security with writer, editor & all around cool person, Jill Sherman.

Anyone who freelances knows there's often gaps between projects where you're hustling to get more work; adding past contracts to your resume, updating your website, and sending out rafts of emails. These quiet times are perfect for brushing up on the things that you don't get to do when your plate is full--like fill your plate with delicious southern fried tofu made from scratch!

This was turning out to be a quiet week so I decided to do just that, and since I was doing it, I decided I should write about it too! I did a quick web search, something like "Best Southern Fried Tofu Recipe" and scanned through the results to find the one with the yummiest pics. Here's the recipe I decided to use: Southern Fried Tofu and Some Fixings.

I am a prep fiend, I love to measure ingredients, I love to portion it all out into different sized bowls, and ready everything for cooking. I find it immensely satisfying to look at an array of components, with all of their different scents and textures, and marvel at the alchemy that will turn them into a delicious meal. It feels almost wizard-like.

I used 2 blocks of Whole Foods brand extra firm tofu which I cut into about 20 rectangles. Despite being labeled extra firm, I found the Whole Foods tofu to have a very soft, almost pasty consistency, especially on the outside. It wasn't so soft that I didn't think it would do the job, but the porousness worried me a bit. Here's the cut up tofu with the marinade ingredients.

The marinade recipe called for pineapple juice and we just happened to have half a pineapple left from a stir-fry we made not too long ago, so I just ran that through the juicer for some fresh juice. Once the tofu was safely bathing in the brine, I moved on to prepping the "buttermilk" mixture.

Before I started prepping the breading mix, I gave the marinating tofu a quick sniff, I was extremely curious to sample the juicy tofu and wanted to get a sense of what it might taste like--and surprise! It actually smelled a little like chicken.

I'm not a big fan of trying to replicate meat tastes or smells when cooking vegetarian. Using the natural tastes and textures of tofu, tempeh, or seitan to make complex and creative meals is totally the way to go, but the aroma of that tofu marinade had me extremely interested--so I forged on.

The breading mixture was a veritable laundry list of herbs and spices, and it was extremely fun to measure them out and get them ready for the mix. There were even some herbs that I'd never even heard of before, like savory--which I bought fresh. Savory smells and tastes a bit like a bitter oregano with thin, tapered leaves which detach easily from the pliable purple stalks.

Once everything was measured and mixed, and enough time had passed for the tofu to soak, I got to frying. Here's the result, fresh out of the pan!

The breading was crisp and flaky and had just the right amount of "pull" to it, you can see and taste the herbs and spices, and each piece was nice and firm. It clung tightly to the tofu and peeled away instead of just falling off. As side dishes, I chopped up some collard greens, sauteed them in a pan with minced garlic, a little oil, and a lot of water, then boiled and mashed sweet potatoes.

I'd also heard a lot about sour beers being trendy, so I picked up a bottle of Gose Leipziger Bier while I was at Whole Foods. Note my awesome Banded Horn Brewing Co. tumbler.

I have to say, these little cutlets were fantastic! The breading was nice and firm and tasty, the tofu remained a little mushy so the mouth texture was not what I wanted it to be, but they were super juicy and delicious. Not like chicken; a tad sweet balanced against the savory breading with just a smidgen of heat from the pepper and paprika. Not salty at all, which I was worried about since there was so much salt in the brine mix. The beer was crisp and refreshing, with a taste that was comparable to a hoppy cider. It went incredibly well with the tofu.

There was lot of extra fried tofu left over, and when I tried another cutlet the next day I found them to be even better. The tofu had firmed up slightly overnight and the breading thickened a bit, which gave the cutlet a very authentic southern fried texture.

The Truth: I Hear You

I recently had the opportunity to submit a piece of writing to the unique and amazing fiction podcast The Truth--if you haven't heard The Truth, go listen now, you're missing out.

I love what they do, so I wrote something that capitalized off of prominent sound design. I wanted the background ambiance to tell as much of the story as the speaking characters. What I came up with was "I Hear You". You can read it below.

The Truth passed on it, and I understand why. It's a little too dark. Not enough Amazing Stories, and maybe too much unknowable horror. I like it, though, so maybe you'll like it. Here it is if you're interested.

"I Hear You" - Tim Mucci

Enjoy.