Norman Prentiss

Excerpts from The Apocalypse-a-Day Desk Calendar

Lava Scape

August 23

Pictures from the Moon

 

On this day in 1966, Lunar Orbiter 1 took photographs of the Earth.  Our planet looks like a dome in the pictures, its lower two-thirds masked by a rounded shadow as it rises into distant view beyond the lunar surface.  A network of clouds swirls across the lighted portion of the sphere, with oceans and land masses faint beneath the atmospheric veil.

Such pictures are still considered worth taking.  Other satellites continue to aim lenses at our planet, capturing images that convey weather details, subtle changes in the ice caps, or the slow drift of oceans and continents.

The latest Lunar Orbiter follows its pre-programmed path, in line with the iconic 1966 “Earth-Rise” photograph, duplicating the time and angle for the sake of comparison.

The comparison is not good.  As it turns out, 1966 offered a “Before” picture.  The “After” shot depicts, not a healthy dome, but a smaller, cloud-blackened shape, jagged where it should be round, oceans roiling into steam and continents broken into terrible jigsaw shapes.

Lunar Orbiter X-23 transmits the latest series of images back to Earth.  There’s no one there to receive them.

August 22

“Dear Apocalypse”

[The Advice Column for our Troubled Times]

 

Dear Apocalypse,

I’m feeling overcome with guilt about my recent behavior.

My neighbor, let’s call her Caroline, was saving a small foil-wrapped square of chocolate to give to her son to celebrate his fifth birthday.  Obviously, she wasn’t able to bake or buy any kind of cake, so this was her idea of a symbolic substitute.

I’ve always had a sweet tooth, and it felt like it had been years since I’d tasted chocolate.  I couldn’t stop thinking about the candy, and the hiding place Caroline had shown me at the top shelf in her empty kitchen cupboard.

Yesterday, Caroline asked me to keep an eye on her kid while she scavenged for food in the city ruins.  I made sure the kid stayed inside, safe from danger…but that piece of candy kept calling to me.  The foil wrapping, I knew, shone bright against the darkness at the back of her kitchen shelf.

Before I even realized what I was doing, I’d climbed onto the kitchen counter to reach deep into that top shelf, to grab the wrapped dewdrop of delicious chocolate.  I unwrapped it then and there, popped the morsel in my mouth before I even climbed down off the counter.

It was gray and somewhat stale, but it still melted in my mouth.  It was delicious.  It brought back memories of a better time, and I closed my eyes and imagined myself there.

Then I heard a crash from the front room, followed by a child’s scream.  When I scrambled down and ran to the living room, I was too late.  A mutant had smashed through the front window, and had stolen my neighbor’s only child.

I compressed the foil into a tight ball and stuffed it into my pocket.  The taste of the chocolate lingered in my mouth when Caroline got home, and I tried not to breathe in her direction as I shared the bad news.

That birthday celebration’s not going to happen anymore, but at some point she might notice the chocolate’s gone.  I’m thinking I should tell Caroline that I’d stolen the candy, and that’s why her kid was unsupervised when the mutant broke into her home.

At the same time, she’s been a good neighbor, and I don’t want her to be mad at me.  What do you think I should do?

 

Signed,

Selfish in Schenectady.

 

* * *

 

Dear Selfish,

You are a horrible person.

Is that what you wanted to hear?  We’ve been conditioned to think that anyone who’d “steal candy from a baby” is essentially a monster.  But that rule existed in a happier world.  We now know what real monsters look like, and they’ve got three eyes and hair in the wrong places.

Quite frankly, your neighbor Caroline should never have tempted you by revealing the location of that chocolate drop.  Saving the candy for a birthday celebration was a breach of post-apocalyptic etiquette, as well:   considering how many people have died, it’s impolite to brag about how long you or your child have survived in this changed world.

The most important thing is to preserve a cordial relationship with your neighbor, since the two of you may need each other when (not if) the next difficult situation arises.

Perhaps, as a preemptive strike, mention that some unseen vermin has broken into your home and scuttled away with a food item or two.  Then if she notices the missing chocolate in her own kitchen, you’ve planted an explanation that lets you off the hook.

 

Signed,

The Apocalypse

August 21

2017 Total Solar Eclipse

 

On the occasion of the 2017 Total Solar Eclipse across the United States, I offer a poem recalling my 1979 school day experience viewing a previous eclipse.

 

 

            Eclipse

  

I stared at it, despite the warnings.

While classmates angled a sheet of cardboard,

hole punched in its center, forcing on the wall

a shadow that ringed itself then slowly shifted,

I stared at the eclipse directly.

 

And asked myself — Could this

have made ancient cave dwellers dance?

Did chieftains or court astrologers gain power

from frightened rabble, begging for explanations?

Midday darkness can unsettle,

but it’s clearly part of a cycle:

the sun, covered over, dims slowly,

goes out, then gains in strength again.

No crops could die in those scant seconds,

no empires could be hastened to their ruin.

There’s hardly time to stamp your feet and wail.

 

But then, I knew it was coming.

My friend from California said an earthquake

of a minute seems forever:  fear, like dullness,

stretches out time.  Advance knowledge,

though, eclipses an eclipse.  You wonder

what the fuss is all about.

 

Which is why I looked.

And it was better than the pictures,

better than the filtered shadow on the wall.

But you’ll never know,

even though, I’m telling you,

nothing happened — not even the spots

I’d get from staring at a light bulb.

Too dim for damage.  I decided

those warnings must be just to add a thrill,

a flirt with threats of blindness

when apocalypse is hardly in the cards.

 

That night I heard the moon would cover

the brightest rays, but those most harmful

would filter through or off the edges,

invisible.  Long term effects

could be delayed as much as a month.

I waited in agony for blurring,

expected every morning

to wake up blind.

 

 

August 20

World Mosquito Day

 

You’ve closed the curtains and turned off all the lights in the house, but the buzzing outside continues.

For some reason, mosquitoes have always sought you out.  On a camping trip with schoolmates, you complained about insect bites when your friends were mostly untouched.  In the morning, one side of your tent was covered with plump mosquitoes…and your exposed arms and legs, your neck and face, were covered with raised red welts.

You later learned that light-colored clothing attracted mosquitoes, but your dark clothing never did much to repel them.  Perhaps your fair skin was an equal attractant, and you typically wore long sleeve t-shirts and long pants even in the hottest summer months.  Despite such precautions, you could pull down the elastic top of a sock and find a fresh welt hidden beneath.  Or you’d catch yourself scratching an itch near your elbow, and find new mosquito bites rising where your sleeve should have protected you.  Liberal doses of over-the-counter insect repellant were equally ineffective — some mosquito or other always managed to get past your defenses.

The best explanation you read about was that some people were born with a body chemistry that naturally attracted mosquitoes.  You were one of the “lucky” few whose skin emitted an apparently irresistible smell that these insects could detect.  They were drawn to you like a magnet.

The itching was bad enough.  You also worried that any mosquito that bit you might be a carrier of some terrible disease such as malaria, yellow fever, the West Nile or Zika viruses…  It was enough to make you avoid the outdoors as much as possible.  Your sixth floor apartment has a lovely balcony, but you’ve never allowed yourself the luxury of stepping out there to enjoy the view.

The buzzing continues from outside.  You hear the strange squeak and puckered release of insect feet travelling along the glass door that leads to your balcony.

It no longer matters if the mosquitoes are transmitting diseases.

Something got to them first.  Transformed them.

The buzzing is so loud.  In former days, you’d think a huge swarm of the insects gathered outside your apartment.  They’re all attracted to you, waiting in an awful blood-sucking cloud.

You don’t need to pull the balcony curtain aside to realize what’s out there now.

More squeaks drag along the outside of the glass door.  You step closer, thinking maybe you could move the sofa or other furniture to cover the entrance.

Suddenly, a section of the wall breaks beside the door, and a proboscis the size of an elephant’s trunk bursts through with the force of a thrown javelin.

The insect’s sense of smell has been magnified along with its body.  You’re not surprised that it’s found you so easily.

August 19

National Aviation Day (U.S.)

Orville Wright (b. 1871)

 

If you could jump.  If you could fly.

You see fires burning in the far distance, on one side of the chasm — one of many chasms that split the Earth along fault lines and shattered continents into pieces.

Those fires, you’re certain, are not the aftermath of explosions or other destructive events.  They are small fires for night time warmth, for light, for the cooking of meals.  They are signs of life.

You’re standing alone on an island.  No matter which way you walk, you soon hit a dead end:  the ledge of a newly formed cliff that drops farther than you can see, the opposite edge too far to leap across.

The island comprises about a dozen acres of mostly barren land, with a few small trees and waist-high weeds in the north section.  You’d tried to fashion some kind of rope out of weed and branch fibers, but could never manage anything strong enough to hold your weight.

No buildings, no tools, no salvageable wood.  Your best shot, for many days, was to cup your hands around your mouth and shout for help.

Nobody seemed to hear you.  As more days passed, your voice grew weaker.

Possibly from delirium, you started to dream about flying.

You took a small branch and tried to trace a diagram in the dirt.  You thought:  this is probably how Frank and Orville Wright began their experiments in aviation.  They first experimented with crude glider designs, inspired by birds’ wings.  Although the finished airplane flew for almost 1,000 feet in their famous exhibition, you need only a tenth of that distance to cross the shortest point from your island to the surrounding world.

Occasional birds seemed to mock you as they flew effortlessly above.  You uprooted small trees, pulled off bark, plucked weed strands, then used these natural materials to combine scraps ripped off your shirt and trousers to make a crude kite-like contraption.

The right gust of wind, you convinced yourself, could catch this leaf-feathered kite as you held it over your head, kicked off the edge of your island, and cycled you feet frantically in the air like an Olympic long jumper.  You’re so light now, from lack of eating, it feels as if your bones are hollow.  For an instant, just long enough to cross the chasm, you’ll be able to fly.

You stand at the edge of your island, waiting for the wind to shift.  The distance across the deep chasm, even at this closest point, seems far — so you close your eyes, trying not to think about it.  Wings rustle as a bird passes overhead.  The leaves on your own wings rustle too, as if in answer, and you feel a tug in your arms as the contraption lifts.  Soon, you’ll be with other survivors, the heat of a small fire warming your face. You take a deep breath, and jump.

Time seems to stand still.  You rise high, higher, but haven’t touched the ground yet.  It’s only when you think you’ve almost crossed the chasm that you let yourself open your eyes.

 

August 18

The Lost Colony

 

Imagine what it felt like to be John White in 1590, returning to Roanoke Colony after an extended absence, and finding it abandoned.

Walk with him through that early American settlement, a place where he once lived and governed, as he finds no signs of life save for an unidentifiable human skeleton, and a mysterious word carved into a tree.

What happened to his wife and daughter and three-year-old granddaughter?  In total, 115 people had disappeared.

Now flash forward to the present.  Drive your car past a familiar church and gas station, ride deeper into the town you used to call home.  Consider the mid-day hour, which might explain the lack of other cars on the main street.  It’s a between-meal time, and most residents are at work or attending school — explaining the empty local eateries, the lack of pedestrians along downtown sidewalks.

But as you keep driving it occurs to you — as it must have occurred to John White centuries earlier — that the silence, the emptiness, is unnatural.  Yet, like him, you cling to possible explanations:   an event enticed residents to gather outside town, perhaps to observe some unexpected holiday, to commemorate a local hero, to attend a popular concert or sporting competition.

The longer you drive, the weaker such explanations seem.  There should have been an attendant at the gas station outside town.  The fast food restaurants, at the least, should be open for off-time patrons.

One car.  One car should have driven past by now.

You dread finding a human skeleton.   You dread whatever mysterious word might be carved in the trunk of a tree or painted on the side of an abandoned building.

Because this isn’t the first place you’ve visited this month.

Every town you’ve driven through is empty.  You are John White, and the entire world has become the Lost Colony of Roanoke.

August 17

Apocalypse Dreams #2 (Black Cat Appreciation Day)

[a series in which we imagine what bizarre dreams might haunt the troubled nights of post-apocalyptic survivors…]

 

Whitney didn’t want to take her cat to the animal shelter, but it was her only option.  She got offered a job out of town, and the housing she could arrange on short notice didn’t allow pets.

None of her friends would take Midnight.  She’d even posted FREE CAT notices on the university bulletin board, with little tear off tags listing her phone number.  No takers.

Time was running out.  Reluctantly, she took her companion of four years to the shelter, hoping they’d be able to find Midnight a good home.

And Whitney dreams about that moment now, the animal inside a cardboard carrier with breathing holes punched in the sides.  In her dreams, the reception desk at the shelter waits at the end of a long interior corridor.  She walks forward, her shoes clicking on tile, the carrier hanging heavy off one unbalanced arm, and Midnight keeps making that half-mewl, almost a gargle — the sound he made whenever he was hungry or afraid.

The desk seems to recede as she walks down the telescoping hallway, as if she’ll never get there.  Then, in a dream-shift instant, she’s arrived, and she opens the box slowly to show her cat to the volunteer receptionist.  Whitney hopes for reassurance:  the worker will exclaim how pretty Midnight is, will remark that he’ll attract a new owner quickly, without fail.  No need to mention any alternatives.

Instead, as happened in real life, the receptionist says:  “I’m sorry.  We can’t take any black cats at this time.  There has been news of odd rituals in the area, involving black cats, and we can’t get involved in those kinds of transactions.”

Stunned, she holds Midnight close to her chest as if protecting him from whatever dark rituals the shelter’s representative described.  Midnight squirms, wants to climb up on her shoulders, but Whitney doesn’t let him.  She puts him back in the container, folds the flaps together to form the handle, and walks away.

What could she do?  As in real life, her dream self feels like she’s run out of options.

Whitney probably tosses and turns nervously in her sleep now, trying not to think of what she did many years ago.

The dream corridor stretches even longer as she walks towards the exit.  A door, one she hadn’t noticed on the way in, appears to one side, slightly open.

Midnight’s cries suddenly grow silent.  He feels like a dead weight inside the cardboard carrier.

She moves closer to the door, pushes it open and steps inside.

It’s a smaller version of the usual display room at an animal shelter.  Cages are stacked upon cages, rows upon rows arranged like bookshelves in a library, aisles in a grocery store.

Each cage holds a small litter box, a metal bowl for food and another for water.  All the animals turn their heads as Whitney passes, their green eyes flashing.

All cats.  All black.  She checks other rows to make sure, and finds similar green eyes glaring from dark feline faces, their fur as black as Midnight’s.

Her cat mewls again, this time a full-throated cry.  The carrier wriggles in her arm as Midnight moves around, agitated, scratching at the cardboard.

The other animals answer back in unison, their feline voices blending to approximate the drone of a ritual chant.  In her recurring dream, Whitney thinks this is a terrible omen — this caged collection of bad-luck animals predicting a dark future for all.

And she dreads waking once again into the world where that prediction has come true, where her home is little better than a cardboard box — the world where she continually offers her own half-cry, almost a gargle, which is the sound she makes because she’s hungry and afraid.

August 16

National Tell a Joke Day

The Last ____________ on Earth (Part 5)

 

The speaker walks to the edge of the stage, taps the microphone, says, “Is this thing on?”

He laughs at his own joke, which is one of his trademarks.  “Who am I kidding.  This microphone is as dead as my whole family.”

The audience groans.

“What, too soon?”  He scans the small crowd, testing the mood of the room.  “Hey, I get it.  I lost my wife and three kids.  And that was before the bombs dropped.  Pretty careless, right?”

He consults his notes, changes the topic.  “Kids these days, you know?  They always think they have it tougher than we did.  Well, actually they do.”

Crickets chirping…

“Hey, um, who’s hungry out there?  I sometimes think the apocalypse was a big scam to get me to miss my mother-in-law’s cooking.  Man, I thought she was terrible, but now I’m making my own meals, and I don’t think spaghetti sauce is supposed to be purple, am I right?”

Someone in the audience boos.

“Oh, thanks for that.  You ever notice how men and women are different?   Like, a woman could get all excited about extra closet space, while the guy’s shouting that meteorite just tore down an interior wall!  Ha ha.  And remember that air filter kit the government gave out, you know, the wives were all ‘slot A is supposed to go into charcoal ring B,’ and the husband’s like, I never bother with instructions and just jams the pieces together and gets everybody killed, am I right?”

Some of the audience members get up to leave.  The last comic on Earth calls after them:

“I’m still working on my material.  Give me another shot next week, okay?”

August 15

National Relaxation Day

 

Admit it.  The stress of the apocalypse is wearing you down.  You find it hard to sleep at night, and you have low energy during the day.

With all the death and destruction surrounding you, it’s no wonder if you feel a tad depressed.

Which is why it’s important to take a little “you” time now and then.  That’s what National Relaxation Day is all about.  Find something that makes you happy.  Allow yourself to indulge.

Here are some suggestions:

Take a long hot bath.  Hey, you’re having to heat the water anyway, to sterilize it of all the contaminants.  Why not pour it in a tub while it’s hot, then climb in for a good soak.  Soap and body gel are hard to find, but you could scrape off some of the grime using your fingernails.

Spend the day shopping.  Everybody enjoys finding a good bargain.  Of course, most people took advantage of the five-finger discounts during looting season, but some of the display pedestals are still in place, so you can imagine what lovely items used to be on sale.  Call it a kind of “broken-window shopping.”

Visit the local playground.  It always used to cheer you up to see those young smiling faces as kids played on the swings or the slide or the monkey bars.  You might feel a little sad knowing your own kid isn’t around anymore  — but could console yourself with the thought that, if she were here, she’d really miss all her friends.

Go for a jog through the park.  Running always was an effective form of exercise, and it’s also the recommended method for outpacing a hoard of slow-moving zombies.

Read a book.  We know you’d rather watch television or go to the movies — who wouldn’t?  Now that those options are, literally, out of the picture, why not find yourself a nice romance or mystery or some other page-turner.  Stay away from science fiction, though:  we already know how the future turns out, and it’s not pretty.

August 14

Northeast Blackout of 2003 (northeast US and Ontario)

 

“Imagine being in Times Square when the lights went out.

“Broad daylight when it first happened — so not so scary, right?  Turns out it started at some power station in Ohio, then some domino effect tripped stations across the grid, until over 50 million people were affected.  It happened fast, like the spread of rumor in a Times Square crowd.

“Because even then, we worried about terrorism.  We also worried about patients dying if hospitals lost power to their equipment.  We worried about electronic data erased from Stock Exchange computers.  We worried about subway trains missing their signals and crashing into each other — and the same thing happening with cars at above-ground intersections.

“We worried about the sound system at the show we had tickets for that night.

“At the same time, there was something wondrous about it.  The city always seemed to glow from within, competing with the Sun — and always winning the battle with the Moon and the night sky.  Those marquees and electronic billboards and bright storefronts turned off all at once that afternoon.

“Yes, I think there was a kind of snap, now that you ask.  Startling, like that moment you flip a switch and the light bulb flashes and pops in the socket, and it’s just dark when you expected the opposite.  The world seems wrong for a split second.

“But with a dead light bulb, you realize pretty quickly what happened.  That moment in New York, we were a huge crowd of tourists looking at each other, looking up the lengths of tall buildings that used to flash colors and slogans, looking up at the sky as if to find answers there.

“Some folks had battery operated radios, and the news reports warned us to stay calm.  Easier said than done, but the message got through eventually.

“You don’t ever get over the strangeness of a city during a blackout.  There’s people all around, but it’s like you’re in a place that’s empty.  Haunted.

“We had a room on 43rd, so it was a short walk back to the hotel.  A long climb to our 20th story room, though, with the elevators out of commission.  There wasn’t much to do in the room, anyway, with the power gone.

“After dark, we decided to trek back to Times Square to see how everyone else reacted to the blackout.  Streetside vendors had jacked up prices on their limited stock of flashlights and batteries, and it was like following fireflies behind the lucky few who made the purchase.

“When we got back to Times Square, dark except for those waving flashlight dots in the crowd, I noticed how many people were still looking up.  I wanted to say, ‘The buildings are dark.  The billboards are off.  There’s nothing to see.’  But I followed their gaze, too.  Up at the sky.

“That’s when I saw a miracle.  The stars.  The brightest stars I’d even seen, in a city where they’d been mostly invisible — washed out by the flashing Times Square glitz and glamour.  ‘Light pollution,’ they used to call it, and it affected every city to some degree, but New York City the most.

“But for that wondrous night, the night sky won its battle with Times Square.  Literally, a glowing silver lining in the cloud of that great Northeast Blackout of 2003.

“So I know it’s hard to think of now, with all our cities gone dark, but maybe we can recapture that moment if we wish for it hard enough.  We’ve lost our electrical power, but maybe nature will compensate us in some beautiful way, like it always has in the past.

“I’d like to think so.  Tonight, let’s look up.  Maybe the light of the stars will return.”

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