Norman Prentiss

Excerpts from The Apocalypse-a-Day Desk Calendar

Lava Scape

July 19

Max Fleisher (b. 1883)

 

Most people remember Max Fleisher for his Popeye the Sailor cartoons, but Alvin Clifford’s favorite from the Fleisher animation studios was “The Mechanical Monsters” — a 10 minute Superman short about  bank robbing robots.  While the scientist mastermind operated levers on a huge control panel, miles away robots stuffed dollar bills, coins, and diamonds into drawers that opened from their hollow bodies.

Superman found the scientist’s hidden lab, of course, and battled more than two dozen robots before arresting the scientist and returning the stolen goods.

When he was a kid, the robbery scenes captured Alvin’s attention better than the climactic superhero intervention.  Giant robots moved in perfect unison, marching toward a bank or jewelry story.  Police guards aimed their pistols and fired, but bullets would bounce harmlessly off the metal bodies.  Claw hands smashed through display windows, tore hinges off bank vaults, scooped up loot then transformed themselves into airplanes for an easy getaway.

Such amazing mechanical power.  Alvin dreamed of someday building his own robot army:  an unstoppable force, eager to do his bidding.  Instead, he ended up working as a bank clerk.  He thought maybe a robbery might relieve the tedium of his daily routine, but the robbers, human or otherwise, never bothered to materialize.

A new bit of automation entered his work world, though, when his bank was re-designed to eliminate direct contact between tellers and customers.  Conversations occurred via computer monitors; money and receipts were exchanged through sealed capsules, propelled through pneumatic tubes.  The “improvements” were more like a step backwards, and they made his job even more tedious.

But the impersonal layout actually helped protect Alvin when the robots finally came…

 

[…continued tomorrow…]

July 18

“Dear Apocalypse”

[The Advice Column for these Troubled Times]

 

Dear Apocalypse,

My wife went missing during the Great Hailstorms of April 14th.  I’m fairly certain she was killed, but due to the subsequent floods her body was never recovered.

I really wish I could have been home to protect her.  Instead, I was on a work-related bonding retreat that, as it turned out, saved my life.  For weeks after the storms, in addition to missing my wife, I felt terribly guilty.  Of course, I was also occupied with the rebuilding effort — joining a survival crew, gathering food and other supplies, finding a new home.

I began to develop feelings for a young woman (let’s call her Karen) who was also in my survival group.  Events brought us close together:  we ended up sharing food, and a small cement-walled room in the recovery center.  There was only one bed in the room, and we’ve been sleeping in separate shifts — out of respect for my probably-dead wife.

My question is:  now that the condition of our world has shifted, have the rules for grieving spouses also been adjusted?  In previous years, it was customary to wait until a spouse had been declared legally dead before remarrying.  I’m not even sure we still have a legal system in our town, so can that step be omitted?

In addition, I realize that surviving spouses were traditionally expected to wait before they began dating again — usually a year or more. As much as I love Karen, this idea makes me wonder if I shouldn’t wait a while before setting a wedding date.

Please advise, Apocalypse.  I honestly want to do the right thing, but I’m not sure what that is anymore.

Signed,

Confused in Connecticut.

 

* * *

 

Dear Confused,

Your situation is one that many of us have struggled with.  The important thing to remember is that our options have become very limited.  We might not have the luxury to follow the niceties we practiced during easier times.

As for having a spouse declared legally dead?  I applaud you, Confused, for not bothering our law-enforcement staff with this problem.  They are too busy shooting looters to go searching for a missing body.

And how could you consider waiting a year to start dating again?  For many of us, our food supply might run out before the year is up.

Give yourself permission to take happiness where you can, and don’t worry about the folks who might judge you harshly based on outdated values.  Their opinion doesn’t matter.

They might not be around much longer, anyway.

Signed,

The Apocalypse

 

July 17

1902 — Invention of first modern Air-Conditioning Device

 

Nathan always wondered what kind of medals and awards they granted to Willis Haviland Carrier, inventor of the air-conditioner.  A Pulitzer, a Nobel Prize, a MacArthur Genius Grant…hell, why not give him a Super Bowl Trophy and a Triple Crown, too?

Because summers would be unbearable without air conditioning — not just to control the heat, but to adjust the suffocating humidity.

Between his junior and senior high school years Nathan had worked at a camp, and the indoor spaces were so intensely air-conditioned that one co-worker quipped:  “From igloo to igloo, through hell.”  The igloo was Nathan’s preference, so he volunteered for craft activities and let the other counselors deal with the nature walks and outdoor sports.

In his graduate school days in St. Louis, he had a small a/c unit in the bedroom, and ended up confined to that single room for most of the summer, reading textbooks while the rest of the apartment sweltered.

When he lived in a condo in Flagstaff, the HVAC unit was so loud that whenever it came on, Nathan had to turn up the TV to ridiculous levels so he could hear the dialogue.  He never considered changing the thermostat during his favorite shows — less air-conditioning wasn’t a real alternative.

All his life experience taught him that he didn’t have the constitution to tolerate excessive heat.

So when he designed his underground shelter, Nathan made sure to include a cooling system that would run on generator power.  In the unlikely event, of course…

And then that unlikely event hit.  The ground shook beneath his feet, an intense flash of light in the distance then, after a delay, a low awful rumble.  Nathan ran to open the hatch, pulled it shut after himself and then hurried down metal rungs into the shelter.  More shaking, the muffled sounds of distant explosions, then a menacing silence.

Next were more shakes and rumbles, closer this time.  Nathan realized it was the generator starting up, the grinding of his HVAC unit coming to life.  His air conditioning was almost as noisy as the one in the Flagstaff condo, but that was okay.  It was comforting to hear that it was working.

He turned on the short-wave radio and searched the bands for any announcements about what happened.  He found only static.  That couldn’t be good.  He’d probably have to stay in the shelter for a long while, until the air above ground cleared up.

Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad.  He had 2-year supplies of food and water, and plenty of books to read.  He was safe.

Really, it would be like that summer in graduate school, when he’d been confined to that single room of a/c.  Nathan knew he could tough it out.

Except…he felt a little uncomfortable.  He grabbed his rechargeable lantern and went to examine the thermostat.  The lever pointed to “Cool,” and the display read “68.”

It felt warmer than that.  By a lot.

Nathan waved a hand in front of the nearest ventilation duct.  The air felt like the gust from the tailpipe of a passing bus…the blast after opening an oven door.

Flipping thermostat switches produced no discernible effect.  The unit continued to rumble.

He’d paid contractors to build the shelter, to install the generator and other equipment.  He had no knowledge of how to fix things on his own.  Nathan tried to reach help through his cell phone but, as expected, got no signal.

Warm air continued to blow from the floor vents.  He stacked books over them, to hold down the heat, but the room still grew warmer and warmer.

This isn’t what I planned for, Nathan thought.  The igloo.  I wanted the igloo…

July 15

Social Media Giving Day

 

All week, you’ve been trying to get online.  Your city was hit hardest by the quakes, and you’ve been really hoping the promised relief will arrive.

If you don’t find out where the food drops are, other people will get there first.  There will be nothing left.

You’ve switched your phone to wireless mode, since the cell towers have been inoperable.  There’s not much battery life remaining in your device.

Funny how some things stick in your head.  You remember that today used to be designated as “Social Media Giving Day” — a day that encouraged people to donate to charities via online apps or websites.

Last year, you gave $10 of PayFriend money to a hunger relief fund.  You felt good about the idea of helping starving children.

And now you’re learning the true meaning of starvation.

Your phone emits a faint chirp, and the screen lights up slightly.  You almost missed it, since you’ve turned down the sound and backlight to save energy.  You race across the fallen debris in your living room, moving to the cleared corner where reception is usually best.

The phone’s browser opens to your usual homepage and an automated pop-up appears, obscuring your local newsfeed.

“Happy Social Media Giving Day,” the pop-up reads.  “Tap to receive gifts from your friends around the world.”

You tap, since it’s apparently the only way to get the pop-up out of the way.

The first gift is a Virtual Hug.  The GIF figure spreads its arms wide while animated hearts float above.

You tap again, and receive a Virtual Hamburger.  The sesame seed bun has eyes that look from side to side while a short tune plays.

With the next tap, you receive a second Virtual Hug.  This one seems longer than the first, with larger hearts dancing across the screen then popping like balloons.

Your next tap reveals a bouncing package with a bright birthday bow.  You have to swipe across the screen to remove the wrapping.  A large hand rises from the open box, and there’s a reminder-string tied around the animated forefinger.  Words scroll slowly across the screen: “Don’t forget to give to your favorite charity today!”

The tapping is taking too long.  You need to read behind these messages to find the location for the government-sponsored food drop.  Squinting at the screen, you still can’t make out the vital information on your newsfeed.

You do, however, notice a number in the corner of the latest pop-up message.

135. The number of Virtual Gifts remaining, apparently.

You tap on the next screen, and another tedious animation begins.

The backlight on your device begins to fade.

July 13

Apocalypse the 13th

[third in a series of 13-word micro fiction stories, for the 13th day of the month!]

 

Hemingway’s flash story, apocalyptic remix:  FOR SALE.  Baby shoes.  Feet still in them.

 

July 12

Apocalypse Dreams #1

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

 

He finds himself in a dark room.  He reaches along the wall, feeling for a light switch.  Instead, he brushes over a series of leather spines arranged along a bookshelf, like touching the scaled hide of some massive prehistoric animal.

He decides the bookshelf might block a window, and he could find natural light if he moved it aside.  His fingers grasped the spines of each book, and he began violently pulling them off the shelf.

The books felt sticky and wet.  He heard the growl of an angry beast.

July 11

World Population Day

 

Tricia made it a practice to lock the door whenever she stepped outside her apartment.  It didn’t matter if she was leaving for a full day at work, or simply walking down the hall to check her lobby mailbox.  The door needed to be locked, or somebody could get inside her home.

A couple times over the years, she slipped up.  Once, she’d made a third trip to the garage to bring groceries from her car, and when she got back to her door, the key moved easily in the lock, without the tell-tale click of unlatching.  In that brief unsupervised moment, she was sure, someone had seized the opportunity and snuck inside.

That person stayed hidden in her home, moving quickly from one room to the next to avoid discovery.  Sometimes she heard a stray footstep, a cough or sigh in the middle of the night.

Another time, a phone call prompted Tricia to admit a cable repairman into the building.  She’d hurried to meet him, neglecting the lock, which allowed a second opportunistic Guest to enter her apartment.

All told, she had at least three Guests — including the morning a torrential downpour surprised her, and she’d rushed back to her apartment to get an umbrella.  She’d actually left the apartment unlocked that entire workday:  though she only counted that mistake once, in the eight-hour span there was no telling how many Guests might have found their way into her home.

They were very good at keeping out of sight.  Tip-toeing just ahead of her, ducking around corners.  They hid behind chairs or in closets, lay under her bed or low in the bathtub.  They learned Tricia’s strict routines, which helped them to avoid her.

She never, ever, deliberately looked for them.  She feared how they might react if they were caught.

Noticing the occasional musky smell of sweat, she decided at least two of her Guests were grown men.  A waft of perfume convinced her another of them was female — a young girl, judging from the high-pitched laugh Tricia sometimes overheard.  One night in bed, Tricia got angry, shouted What’s so funny to her darkened apartment, and the laughs stopped for a short while.

Sometimes, Tricia thought about overpopulation in other countries — too many people, and not enough food to go around.  Or in larger cities nearer to her home, where poor families crowded together in a single room, sharing beds, sheets hanging from the ceiling to partition the limited space.

Everywhere was overcrowded:  too many cars on the roads, long lines at the grocery store, small cubicles at work and the coughs and sighs of coworkers interrupting her daily tasks.  At night, while hanging sheets flapped in the dark like whispers, and a young girl laughed, Tricia dreamed of horrible cataclysms that would empty the world.

 

July 10

The Original Roswell Crash Site (Part 3)

[…continued from July 9 entry…]

 

Maxwell considered the opening in the rock, thinking of what might lie within the dark hole.  He imagined a glass bottle discarded there, shards of glass broken inside.  He thought of creatures that might make a nest there — snakes, rodents, spiders — all poised to attack an intruder’s hand.

“I can’t,” Maxwell said, standing up from his kneeling position.  “I can’t do it.”

“It’s what you came here for,” the guide said.  “No refunds.”

He began to feel even more foolish.  The guide wasn’t going to kill him, but had simply scammed him.  If Maxwell didn’t follow the instructions, he couldn’t fairly ask for his money back.  The idea was almost enough to get him to reach inside the opening…if the whole situation weren’t so illogical.

“This isn’t the original crash site.”  Maxwell became the angry customer at the Returns Counter, waving his jug of expired milk or a defective blender.  “I heard about the reports of fire in the sky, a huge saucer passing overhead.”

“It was a trick of perspective,” the guide said.  “The saucer wasn’t large, but it was dense, and it left an exaggerated flame trail.  Some of these trees lost branches or were scarred along their trunks, but that was seventy years ago.  The trees healed up over time.  The rock didn’t.”

The guide pointed again at the opening in the slate rock.  The edges were jagged, but didn’t seem the kind of damage that could be caused by an earthquake or natural erosion.  Maxwell was no expert, but he began to believe this could actually be an impact crater.

“You’re saying part of the ship crashed through here?”

The guide shook his head.  “Not part of the ship.  The whole thing.  It’s the size of a grapefruit, and you can feel it if you reach in there.”

Was it possible?  Maxwell wanted so badly to believe he hadn’t been scammed, wanted so badly to have his own direct connection to an alien artifact.  He began to rationalize the story’s plausibility:  if the ship were this small, it could easily hide in plain sight.  That explained why casual tourists didn’t know about this location.

Maxwell took a deep breath, summoning courage.  He kneeled again, then reached into the opening in the rock.

He stretched further, grasping.  Sharp points of rock tore part of his shirt sleeve, and he felt scratches along his forearm.

A grapefruit, the guide had said.  But there’s nothing here like a grape–

And his fingers touched a strange, textured surface.  Dome-like and with pock marks on it, as might have happened to a craft that traveled many light years, battered by space debris and a planet’s atmospheric force.

Or, maybe an actual grapefruit, the skin intact but the fruit rotting inside.  Possibly a leather softball, with stitchings adding a ridged texture.  He couldn’t be sure without seeing it.  The object felt strange, but it didn’t feel alien.

That’s when the rounded surface began to vibrate.  A gyroscopic tremble carried up the length of his arm, and it seemed to him that the object was intending to rise under its own revived power.

Points of rock scratched deeper into his arm, and a clammy wetness oozed over Maxwell’s grasping hand — as if he’d reached inside a mouth, and an alien tongue glided over his palm and drooled between his fingers.

He finally identified the pocked texture of the tiny spacecraft.  He was running his fingertips over rough, wet tastebuds.

The vibrations radiated through his arm and up his shoulders and into his head.  You’ll see what you came here to see, the guide had promised, and Maxwell felt like the man was going to sneak up behind him and whack his skull with a club, and then his head continued to vibrate until his vision settled on a mysterious landscape of jagged rocks, a line of spherical machines aimed toward an alien sky, and creatures with tastebuds over their skins climbed aboard each craft with thoughts of conquering other worlds, one gullible victim at a time.

 

 

July 9

The Original Roswell Crash Site (Part 2 of 3)

[…continued from July 8 entry…]

 

“This can’t be the original site,” Maxwell Kipling said.  “There’s nothing here.”

“What do you expect?”  The guide waived his arms to indicate the wooded area.  “You think a giant saucer blazed through here on fire, destroying everything in its path?  You think it made a huge crater in the earth for everyone to see?”

The agitation in the guide’s face made his features seem blurry again, and it reminded Maxwell of the face on a badly Xeroxed wanted poster.  Or, the black-and-white mugshot at the back of a true crime paperback about serial killers.

He’s taken my money for this special tour, Maxwell thought.  And now he’s lured me away from civilization, into a hidden area of the woods, to kill me.

“You got all my money for the tour.” Maxwell tried to hold back, but the whimper still crept into his voice.  “I don’t have any more to give.”

“I’m not asking for more money,” the guide said.  “Come here.”

The guide sounded like an angry teacher, or a superior officer.  Beneath his T-shirt, the man’s chest looked broad, his arms strong.  He wore cargo pants with lots of pockets — multiple places where weapons could be hidden, or a cloth handkerchief and a vial of chloroform.  Maxwell looked around at the woods, remembered how long they’d walked, and how they might have gone in circles.  If he wanted to run away, he had no idea which way to go.

“Over here,” the guide said, pointing to the ground in front of him.

Maxwell headed slowly where the guide indicated.  Was he expected to kneel?  Put his hands behind his head and wait for his execution?

The guide pointed again, to get Maxwell to hurry.  “Look.”

A large, flat section of slate rock spanned the ground where the guard pointed.  Sections of twigs and dead leaves covered a portion of the rock.  “Move that aside,” the guide said, kicking at the twigs with his shoe.  “You’ll see what you came here to see.”

Maxwell was puzzled, unsure if he was supposed to move the rock or the obscuring twigs.  Then he noticed a crack in the rock, and he kneeled to push aside more twigs, revealing a dark opening in the slate rock…ragged at the edges, and about four inches in diameter.

“Go ahead,” the guide urged.  “Reach your hand in there.”

 

[…continued tomorrow…]

July 8

1947 — Press Release reports crash of “flying disc” in Roswell, New Mexico

 

Maxwell Kipling never believed the story about the weather balloon.  More plausible was the explanation offered in the 90s, that the Roswell object was connected to secret nuclear testing.

Even more plausible, to his mind, were theories that involved an alien spacecraft, recovered alien bodies, and a subsequent government cover-up.  There were too many people who believed the alien angle — there simply had to be a kernel of truth behind such wide-spread consensus.

But seeing is believing, and his guide had promised (for a substantial fee) to take Maxwell to the actual crash site an hour’s drive outside the town.   You always had to pay money to get to the real truth — away from the souvenir shops, restaurants shaped like flying saucers, glowing green alien caricatures painted on the sides of buildings.  As the guide’s jeep drove farther and farther from town, the unreality of Roswell’s tourist attractions slipped away, and Maxwell felt each mile bringing him closer to something authentic.

His guide encouraged the notion.   Maxwell had located the man through a series of threads on an Internet message board, and had tracked him down and sent a few private emails in advance of his Roswell visit.  “This won’t exactly be an alien encounter,” the guide said now, keeping his eyes on the road ahead as he drove, “but it will be the closest you could get.  I can’t say anymore.”   The man looked a lot like his message board avatar, a blurred, low-res black and white picture that might have been clipped from a newspaper or frame-grabbed from an FBI evidence film.  Here, smoke from the man’s cigarette, and dust from the jeep’s tires spinning up from the dirt road, recreated the blurring effect.

They’d taken an unmarked side-road off the main highway, and Maxwell understood the necessity for the jeep.  Parts of the road were unfinished, and twice they had to drive around a fallen tree.

“I’d heard the crash was outside a farm,” Maxwell said.

“It ain’t a farm no more.”  The guide offered no further explanation.  Maxwell hoped he’d be more talkative when they reached the site.

It occurred to him that he hadn’t told others in his tour group where he was going, and hadn’t shared any information about his private tour guide with friends or co-workers back home.  Part of the reason was that Maxwell had been embarrassed about the amount of money he was paying this guide:  he didn’t want to say anything about his excursion until afterwards, when he’d presumably have exciting details to share.

Or, if it turned out to be a bust, he’d simply keep the whole story to himself.

“We’re here.”  The guide stopped the jeep, then pulled back the emergency brake.

This spot was definitely off the beaten track.  There were no signs to indicate the historical importance of the area, no markers that would have helped drivers confirm the location.  Maxwell never could have found the place on his own; the guide was definitely a good investment.

They exited the jeep, and the guide led him through a section of woods that Maxwell expected would eventually open up into a clearing.  He wondered what internal compass confirmed each of the guide’s steps, which trees or rocks the man recognized as landmarks.

It seemed like they’d been walking a long time.  Maxwell thought maybe they’d gone around in a circle.

After another fifteen minutes through rough woods, the guide paused in his tracks and turned to face him.  “This is it,” he said.  “The original Roswell crash site.”

[…continued tomorrow…]

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