Norman Prentiss

Excerpts from The Apocalypse-a-Day Desk Calendar

Lava Scape

March 29

Surgery

 

In the weeks leading up to your surgery, you turned to your online friends for support.  Most people told you not to worry.  If any doctors mentioned mortality statistics, or told you to “get your affairs in order beforehand,” that was simply a legal requirement.

Some knew others who’s had the same procedure, or had actually had the procedure themselves.

You made a special point to avoid anything upsetting, especially the night before the operation.  However, the hospital sent you the link to a video that you were required to watch, outlining the surgical procedure and the subsequent recovery.  You waited until the last minute to watch it.

The video’s narrator spoke in a calm voice.  Instead of live-action footage, the informational video represented the surgery with animated diagrams.  The drawings didn’t fool you: a dotted line appeared down the center of a cartoon chest, a knife followed the line, then the ribcage was split open to reveal a still-beating heart.  It was the most gruesome cartoon you had ever seen.

You tried to clear your head, hoping to get some good sleep before your surgery, but your MyBook account dinged.  A computer window popped up with the name of a long-lost childhood friend.  You clicked on the message:

I had the same surgery a few years ago (the message said), and there are some things you need to know.  I survived, and I know you will, too, but don’t be surprised if you wake up disoriented.  I was unable to speak.  I suffered incredible pain, but was unable to tell anyone.  The nurses hovered over me like demons, and they pulled at my arms and legs and strapped them to the hospital mattress.  I felt like I couldn’t breathe.  I was unable to lift my head, but was certain my chest was open and exposed.  A group of small children visited my room, and one of them sneezed deliberately into my chest.  Time slowed to a standstill.  Occasionally I heard whispers in the hallway, voices planning a series of new surgeries, which I’d be helpless to stop.

Two more long paragraphs followed.  You stopped reading, closing the lid to your laptop, but it was too late.  You were near tears, overwhelmed with fear.  Why had your friend sent this message?  Why did you read from it?  The message contained exactly the ideas you’d worked so hard to protect yourself from.

So many supportive friends.  But today, as you lay on the gurney and are wheeled into anesthesia before your surgery, all you can think of is the violent informational video, the terrifying message from your long-lost friend, and the awful idea that you’ll count backwards from one hundred and wake later to a transformed world…if you wake at all.

[Written on the one-year anniversary of the author’s successful open-heart surgery, March 29, 2016]

 

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Author’s Note:  If you’re enjoying this or other entries at the Apocalypse-a-Day blog, please consider checking out my forthcoming novel, Life in a Haunted House, currently in previews at Amazon: https://kindlescout.amazon.com/p/2GQZCQNY6426Z

If you’re intrigued by it and nominate it, you will get a free copy if Kindle Press chooses to publish the eBook!

And for more free fiction, consider reading the tie-in stories to Life in a Haunted House:

“The Dungeon of Count Verlock,” available to read in its entirety on my website, or as a free eBook at the following link: https://instafreebie.com/free/bu1p9

-and- “The Lake Monster,” available to read at Cemetery Dance Online, or as a free eBook at the following link:  https://instafreebie.com/free/PMtEs

  

March 28

1979 — Nuclear Leak at Three Mile Island

 

“There’s a hell of a lot of radiation in the reactor building.”

Not the words you want to hear from the US spokesman for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, especially if you live in the surrounding Pennsylvania counties.

Or if you’re pregnant, or a pre-school child — ordered to evacuate if living within five miles of the site.

That day in 1979, radioactive steam escaped into the atmosphere.  It took five hours for authorities to alert the public.

Luckily the weather was calm.  A light breeze barely disturbed the air, so the radioactivity didn’t spread too far into populated areas.

Such is not the case today.  You’d moved west to escape nuclear fears from your childhood.  Earthquakes were supposed to be your only significant threat.

An unexpected fault line shook beneath the foundation of a nuclear plant, three states away.  Two separate thunderstorms, accompanied by gale-force winds, converged over the site of this malfunction.  User error, faulty equipment, and a swirling catalyst courtesy of Mother Nature.

The storm is coming, whipping clouds of radioactive mist over the skies.  You’ve taped plastic tarp over the windows, but you hear the pressure of strong winds against the side of your house.  Warning sirens howl in the distance.  A freight train seems to rumble down your street, followed by a snap and hiss of broken power lines, shingles shaking off a nearby roof.

You cower beneath an interior door frame.  You can see into the living room, where a plastic sheet over the front window starts to billow inward like strong wind filling a ship’s sail.  The tape seal breaks free on one corner, and a puff of steam hisses into the room.

 

 

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Author’s Note:  If you’re enjoying this or other entries at the Apocalypse-a-Day blog, please consider checking out my forthcoming novel, Life in a Haunted House, currently in previews at Amazon: https://kindlescout.amazon.com/p/2GQZCQNY6426Z

If you’re intrigued by it and nominate it, you will get a free copy if Kindle Press chooses to publish the eBook!

And for more free fiction, consider reading the tie-in stories to Life in a Haunted House:

“The Dungeon of Count Verlock,” available to read in its entirety on my website, or as a free eBook at the following link: https://instafreebie.com/free/bu1p9

-and- “The Lake Monster,” available to read at Cemetery Dance Online, or as a free eBook at the following link:  https://instafreebie.com/free/PMtEs

  

March 27

World Theatre Day

 

You’re watching a play about the end of the world.

It’s actually a play about peace.  The actors hope to highlight the transformative power of art.  Dramatic art, in particular, has a persuasive immediacy.  As the story unfolds, with living actors in the same room as   the audience, spectators become emotionally and intellectually involved.  A theatrical performance can actually change people’s minds.

Corporate bosses can learn more compassion for their employees; politicians can be swayed into crafting better policies.

For two hours, song and dance numbers amid lavish sets convey a message of hope and prosperity.  Contrasting scenes of modest family drama reinforce the struggles of ordinary folk.

The curtain drops after the finale, then rises again to introduce a solitary woman in a bright, flowing costume.  A spotlight follows her as she steps haltingly to the edge of the stage.

“Why didn’t you do anything?”  Her head bobs slightly.  You’re not certain, but she might be looking directly at you.

You glance nervously at the seats beside you, at the empty rows in front and behind.

“Why didn’t you try to stop it?”  The woman’s figure makes an awkward stumble.  The spotlight shines over her, revealing thin strings supporting her arms and legs, the wobble of her head.

An offstage voice attempts to match the clack of a small wooden mouth. “How could you have let this happen?”

The string lifts her arm, points a finger in your direction.

Curtain.

 

 

March 26

Robert Frost’s Birthday

 

He wrote a short poem about the end of the world.  Quick rhymes of ice and twice, fire and desire, as if we could weigh the manner of apocalypse and pick a preference.

You are not given a choice.  A chemical change occurs in the air itself, and as you breathe in, it feels like burning match heads enter your nostrils.  Instead of sulfur or ash, there’s a crisp hint of chlorine, and you feel the hard scratch of icy crystals along your sinuses.

“It’s both,” you want to tell the poet.

What happens next does not suffice.

 

 

March 25

The Last _______ on Earth (Part 2)

 

“Now that the world has ended, how does that make you feel?”

The Last Therapist on Earth sat in a plush armchair, waited for his patient on the couch to respond.

Lonely, I guess, the patient said.

The Therapist jotted a quick note, then consulted his chart for the session.  “Now let’s try a bit of free association.  Please say the first response that comes into your mind.  Don’t censor yourself.  Ready?”

Yes.

“All right:  Home.”

Gone.

“Food.”

Hungry.

“Family.”

Eaten.

“Leg.”

No leg to stand on.

“Arm.”

Armageddon.

“Okay, I see where this is going.” The Last Therapist on Earth jotted a few more notes on his legal pad.  “Let’s try another approach.  I’m going to show you some inkblot pictures, and I want you to say what the image reminds you of.  Again, tell me first thing that comes into your head.”

He passed the first card to the patient on the couch.  This was the image that patients usually described as a butterfly.

Its a mushroom cloud.

“All right.  Hand that one back.  Here’s another.”  This was the one that people usually described as an animal hide.

A human face.  Then, getting more specific: A face thats been peeled off a persons head.

The Last Therapist on Earth next passed the image that once supposedly helped determine if a patient was homosexual.

It looks like a skull.

The fourth card was an inkblot that patients usually interpreted as a depiction of intimacy.

Oh, God, take this one away!  Theyre killing each other!

“Try a few deep breaths,” the Therapist said, stopping the activity.  “Unfortunately, we’re at the end of the hour.”

The Last Therapist on Earth collected his inkblots, made some final notes on his legal pad.  “We haven’t made much progress,” he said to the empty couch, “but I’m hopeful we’ll have a breakthrough at our next session.”

 

 

March 24

Anniversary of the controversial 2003 production of Oedipus Rex at Graysonville University

 

He couldn’t believe he was taking another class taught by Dr. Bennet Sibley.  Eric had vowed to avoid the old guy like the plague, ever since the awkward academic dishonesty charge of his freshman year — a legitimate charge, but he could never figure out how Sibley caught him.

He couldn’t figure out how Sibley managed to punish him, either.  Eric earned an “A” on the essay he’d bought off the Internet, the teacher was all smiles when handing back the marked paper…yet later, an unfamiliar guilt overcame him, visiting his dreams, distorting them.  It was like being haunted.  The only thing that helped was to write his own paper as replacement for the fraudulent one.

Eric scored a “C” on the rewrite, and was happy for it.  At least he could sleep again.

When his advisor announced he needed another English class his final semester, and Sibley’s Advanced Classical Drama was the only seminar that fit in the Tetris matrix of his senior schedule…well, Eric actually considered staying an extra semester to avoid the possibility.  But Mom already booked an island getaway as his graduation present, followed by a cushy job in Dad’s firm, so it seemed best to stay on track.

He convinced himself he’d be all right.  He would sit in the back of the classroom, keep his head down.

Write his own papers.

So far his strategy had worked.  He was passing the course, just barely, and his nights were mostly calm.

Last night, however, he had a good reason for missed sleep.  The Graysonville University team was ahead in their division, for the first time in years, and the whole school exploded in spontaneous celebration.  Drinking, dancing, shouting at the night sky as if they’d already won the championship.

Little wonder, then, if most people forgot to finish their reading for Sibley’s class.

Everybody was familiar with the Oedipus story, anyway.  Shouldn’t be too difficult to bluff through it.  Besides, Sibley liked to quote his favorite lines from memory — those excerpts would give them enough context to get through the hour.

Eric took his seat at the back of the room, removed his sunglasses and tried to hold an aching head steady.  The rest of the class looked similarly hungover, and he wished he could warn them to stay attentive.

You don’t want Sibley to get mad at you.  You really don’t.

When the professor entered the classroom, he dropped a stack of thick books on his desk with a gun-shot thud.  Almost in unison, students in the first two rows put their hands over their ears and groaned.

Sibley began in a booming baritone, arm raised like an opera singer as he recited the opening lines of the play.

You’d never think a guy as old as Sibley would have such a loud voice.  Eric was certain the other students were wincing.

Smile, he thought.  Let him see you appreciate the words, the performance.

A few more lines, then Sibley lowered his arm.  “What comes next?”  His glance took in the whole room at once, then singled out a few students in turn.  In response, the targeted students began to flip pages in their anthology.  “Don’t look at your books,” Sibley said.  “Look at me.”

Hands froze over the wrong textbook pages.  Eric wished for some fresh air, but all twenty students were crammed into a windowless internal classroom.  He felt sick to his stomach.

“Then I will tell you,” Sibley prompted them in the Messenger’s voice.  “Plain words from Delphi’s god.”  He shifted from a performance voice to a teacher’s, mixing in phrases from the play.  “Something about defilement, hmmm?   A curse that battens on the land of Thebes, was it?  To be banished, eh, Mr. Strasson?”

Eric almost jumped out of his seat at mention of his name.  “Their king,” he said quickly, his head throbbing in response to his own panicked syllables.  “Their old king, and the new one.”

Sibley nodded, as if considering whether to accept the answer.  “You could be more specific.”  He turned to Kelli, usually so well prepared.  “Miss Lachey?”

Dodged the bullet, Eric thought.  She’ll be able to finish the answer.

“I apologize, Dr. Sibley,” Kelli said. “I wasn’t able to finish the reading.”

Oh God, the honesty gambit.  Would it actually work?

Sibley leaned back, his chest swelling as he took a deep breath.  The half-beard on his chin jutted out, gray bristles almost alive with indignation.  “Not finish?  We’re only on the first page.

Their teacher again scanned the room, meeting blank, wincing expressions.

If they only knew, they’d be wincing in fear.

“I see.”  Sibley nodded, went to the stack of books on his desk and slid a small stack of papers from beneath the top volume.  “I think a demonstration is in order.”

A reading quiz.  It had to be.  Sibley took a fountain pen from his shirt pocket, then sat at his front desk and scratched a few marks on the top page.  Perhaps he was adding new questions, crossing out ones that were too easy.

Head down, he scribbled some more.  The whole room was silent, save for the thunderous scrape of his ominous pen.  For a moment, it seemed he’d forgotten where he was, forgotten his students were waiting.

Then he lifted his head, stared at the room over the black rim of his glasses.  “Mister…”  He scanned the rows.  “Mister…”

The gaze reached the back of the room, like a spotlight scanning the yard for an escaped prisoner.  Eric held his breath.

“Mr. Cole, I think.  Come up here, please.”

Exhale.

Dr. Sibley stood, waving the paper to let the fountain ink dry.  “You all need to understand.  These ancient plays are more vital than you think.”

Matthew Cole rose from his seat, walked slowly to the front of the room — careful not to upstage his professor until Sibley was finished speaking.

“Sophocles used techniques that are relevant even today.  Carefully structured phrases in a classical amphitheatre are far more important than some random catch in a modern-day university stadium.  Come here, Mr. Cole.”

Poor Matt stood next to Sibley now, forlorn — a stark contrast to the whooping partier he’d been last night.

Sibley folded the sheet of paper, his fingers pinching the crease, reinforcing the fold as he spoke. “I’m going to require a bit of acting from you, Mr. Cole.  The instructions are on this page.”  He pointed to the closed classroom door.  “Take twenty paces down the hall before reading it.  Come back when you’re ready.”

Matt accepted the paper, opened the door, and stepped out.  His sneakers squeaked on the hall tile as he headed away from the room.

“Now, while our amateur thespian is rehearsing, I’ll explain the concept.”  Dr. Sibley closed the door, then crossed back to the front of the classroom.  “Sophocles was a master at building tension.  Throughout Oedipus, the audience knows what is going to happen, and dreads it.  But the most horrible, violent events of the play happen offstage, and are reported by a messenger.  If you’d bothered to read the play, you’d know what those events are.”

He paused for effect, then continued.  “Maybe that offstage approach doesn’t seem so exciting to your young minds, used to movie blood and gunfire and explosions.  But I assure you, when the messenger enters to announce what Iocaste has done to herself, what poor, doomed Oedipus does in response…the effect is electric.  Absolutely electric.”

Sibley ceased speaking then, and entered the student rows.  He went to Matt’s place, now empty, and took his seat as part of the audience.

Eric watched from the back row, the teacher’s overweight frame at the small desk, his slight gray curls and the thinning spot at the crown of his head.

They all waited.

Nothing.  And then the squeak-scuff of sneakers far away, then quickly down the hall.  Matt’s shadow fell across the frosted glass of the closed door, and it almost seemed like he was going to crash through it.

The door opened, and Matt raced into the room.  He was out of breath, reluctant to speak.

He raised the paper close to his face.  The page rattled with the shaking of his hands.  “Oh, students of Graysonville,” he said.  “What horrors I have to relate, what dreadful tidings I must share.  Our country has…”

Matt wasn’t an actor, by any means.  But Eric had never seen the guy so serious.  He pronounced the archaic phrasings with such utter conviction.

As if he believed them, and dreaded to deliver his awful message.

“Continue,” Sibley prompted from his seat in the audience.

The door was closed.  The classroom had no windows.  What if, in the midst of Sibley’s lesson on classical acting, an unthinkable tragedy had actually occurred?

Eric’s head pounded.  The room grew warmer.

Matt dropped the paper, continued citing from memory.  “The grief you will feel,” he said.  “The evil I must bring into light of day.”

Sibley applauded.  “Bravo.  Electric, as I said.”  He twisted in his seat to scan the rest of the classroom.  “Don’t you agree?”

Warmer.  The air stifling, a pressure pounding in Eric’s head.  Outside these academic walls, he could feel it, believe it: the world spinning towards its inevitable end.

 

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Author’s Note: This story is a sequel of sorts to a previous Dr. Sibley story, “Flannel Board,” which appears in my mini-collection, Four Legs in the Morning, available at the following Amazon link:  https://www.amazon.com/Four-Legs-Morning-Norman-Prentiss-ebook/dp/B008B93WXO

 

 

 

March 23

World Meteorological Day

 

When the weatherman is crying on live television…

Meteorologist Gilbert Bowman had really screwed up the snow storm earlier in the week.  An unseasonable possibility, to be sure, but one he predicted with 90% certainty.  Storms from the west and east would combine over the state, the rain/snow line would stay firmly to the south, and the combined storm would pass over the Atlantic bringing in even more moisture, the storm holding firm over the tri-state viewing area as accumulation continued.  “Prepare yourself for a major weather event,” Bowman insisted.  “Three feet, possibly more.”

The stores had already sent their snow shovels back to the distributor, returned large bags of sidewalk salt to the warehouse.  People in your state always went wild at the slightest hint of snow, and Bowman’s prediction sent them into a full-fledged frenzy.  They fought over jugs of milk and water, over flashlights and batteries, pet food and toilet paper.  They prepared themselves as best they could, then went home and waited.  Bowman had predicted the Great Storm of ’12, after all — and he was even more certain this time.

All the schools were closed.  All government offices, all local businesses.  Everyone was instructed to stay off the roads, unless absolutely necessary.

They waited.  And waited.

Some rain.  A few flurries, but not enough to stick.

Maybe it would change over soon.  A single foot of snow, instead of three or four.

Nope.  Just an average, wet day in March.  The kids were happy to miss school, and many adults enjoyed their unscheduled vacation from work.  But people couldn’t help but be a bit angry, too, after getting all excited over nothing.

“Look at him,” your wife Marian says the next day, calling you into the room.  You thought she wasn’t going to watch Bowman’s channel anymore, but apparently she’d forgotten to change the channel after Wheel. “They must have fired him.”

You step into the den, lower yourself into your leather recliner.  The guy onscreen is crying like a baby.  “Jeez, Bowman, man up,”  you say. They’ve left the camera on him.  He’s at the anchor desk, instead of standing in front of his map screens.  It’s the top of the news hour, instead of the midpoint when they air the regular weather segment.

“Well, he owes us an apology doesn’t he?” Marian says from the couch.

“I hope they did fire him,” you say.  “I screw up in my job, there’s consequences.  Weather folks get things wrong, they just shrug and say they did their best.”

Marina clicks the volume button higher, which makes the guy’s sobs play louder in the room.  Bowman drops his head, takes a shuddery breath to compose himself.  When he straightens up, his eyes are red.  But at least he’s stopped that blubbering.

“As many of you know,” Bowman begins with a shaky voice, “I predicted a significant storm for our region.  As some of you prepared for that storm, there was apparently a serious altercation at the Dairy Mart in King’s County.  Seven people died in a fight over the last cartons of milk, and for any part my forecast played in that tragedy, I am truly sorry.”

A clip plays on the screen — a crowd of protestors from earlier in the day.  One of the hand-printed signs demands, “BANISH BOWMAN.”

The meteorologist speaks over the pre-recorded clip.  “I checked over the various computer prediction models I consulted, including the Canadian, NWS, and European models, combined with my own data.  After careful review…”

The clip ended, and the program cut back to a close-up of Bowman’s face.  “I was not wrong.”

Too much.  “He’s doubling down,” you say.

Marian leans forward, studying the face on the TV screen.  “I think he might be losing his mind.”  A hint of sympathy creeps into her voice.

“There was, however, a problem with the data,” Bowman admits.  His usual after-the-fact corrective, you’re ready to point out, but Marian waves her hand at you — a signal to stay quiet.

The meteorologist trembles again, tears start to well up in his eyes.  “I’m sorry to have to tell you… Another factor interfered with the weather-prediction modules.  A factor much more serious, much bigger, than the storm I outlined in my forecast.”

Bowman reaches beneath the desk, pulls up his own hand-made sign.  It is an amateurish drawing:  circles and curved lines, rocks drawn in black, blue scribbled water, red-marker peaks of fire.  All of it.  All of it raining down.

“I’m no artist,” he says, stating the obvious.  “I didn’t do so well with perspective.  With scale.”  He pulls a fresh marker from his shirt pocket, uncaps it. “This might help.”  He draws a small “x” at the intersection of the chaos.  “We’re here.  We’re right here.”

 

 

March 22

World Water Day

 

Chop. Chop. Chop.

With less food to eat, Alain though that preparation should be simpler.  Each night the family ate out of cans and pouches and tubes. No electricity, so aside from a rare outdoor fire, few things needed to be cooked.

No braising or broasting, no steaming or steeping. No pressure cooking or deep frying, no sauté or flambé.

Everything came pre-packaged. All the prep work involved a manual can opener and a spoon to scrape the contents onto a plate. The simple twist of a lid or tear of pouch, and vegetable or meat paste was squeezed out in rationed portions.

Chop. Chop. Chop.

When Alain had surgery a while back, a few years before the Contamination, he’d had a bad reaction to the anesthesia. The doctors feared he would choke on his food, or even on liquids, so they put him on a dysphagia diet — which meant all his solid foods were minced into drab scoops. They placed a powdered thickening agent in his water and broth, which made all liquids the consistency of pudding.

The nurses told him the thickening agent wouldn’t affect the taste of water, or of the iced tea he’d always liked to drink. They were wrong.  The food was terrible, but the liquids were even worse. He couldn’t wait for the hospital to take him off the dysphagia diet.  They kept him on it for two weeks.

At the time, he thought, the longest two weeks of his life.

Chop. Chop. Chop.

His brother opened the cans, while the younger children squeezed tubes and pinched globs out of foil packages. They always finished preparations before Alain, sat expectantly around the small wooden table, in the modest room the government supplied.

“Ready when you are,” Frannie said.

And his brother would always say, “It’s good enough.  Let’s eat.”

Chop. Chop. Chop.

Since the Contamination, a modified thickening agent was the only way to purify the water supply. The recommended strength turned the liquid into a thick, gag-inducing sludge.  A bowl of water became like a clot of clear noodles, dry and unpalatable. Chopping the water helped, but the pieces would quickly bond together again.

“Bring me a couple scoops of water,” young Ely said.

“I’ll take a slice or two as well,” his brother added.

Chop. Chop. Chop.

 

 

March 21

World Poetry Day

 

The Music of the Spheres

(a villanelle for the apocalypse)

 

The promised gift is less than it appears.

As heavens spin above me in the night,

I do not hear the music of the spheres.

 

Even children know to hold back tears,

hide disappointment under feigned delight,

when the promised gift is less than it appears.

 

If fact and fancy ever could cohere,

a poet’s sense would strain beyond his sight.

Yet I do not hear the music of the spheres.

 

So many times in unenlightened years,

I dreamt the sky was scored with notes of white.

But the promised gift is less than it appears.

 

The ancients speak of magic for the ears,

but stars are nothing more than points of light.

I do not hear the music of the spheres.

 

Mythic heavens can’t dispel our fears.

Don’t be fooled by foil, however bright:

The promised gift is less than it appears.

You will not hear the music of the spheres.

March 20

First Day of Spring (Northern Hemisphere)

 

When you were a younger child, the first day of spring meant you could spend more time outdoors than inside, your heavy coats replaced with a light jacket.  Youd meet friends for a bike ride, pack snacks for a picnic, spend long evenings playing horse or softball or hide-and-seek — wringing the last drops of pleasure from the day before the sun went down.

Spring brought better smells as flowers burst into bloom.  Brighter colors on trees and bushes, the grass turning a lush green after escaping the dry weight of ice and snow.

You were not one who took such things for granted.  You paused to smell flowers then, to watch the lazy graceful flight of a monarch butterfly.  You cleared off the birdfeeder in your backyard, filled the tray with fresh seed, and waited for feathered visitors to fill the air with song.

It was as if your younger self purposefully stored such senses in memory, in case they disappeared not just with the seasons, but for good.

 

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Now old before your time, you wish for sweet, warm rain to nourish the ground.  The things that are supposed to grow, will not.

The ground is too hard.  The air is too cold for buds to sprout on barren branches.

Spring cleaning now means you take out food that has spoiled, stack remaining rations on nearly empty shelves.

On a bleak, sunless day, you work with the few remaining adults to crack through a hard layer of ice, force shovels and picks through earth hard as rock, making holes too large for seeds or saplings, to plant the bodies of your friends.

 

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