Norman Prentiss

Excerpts from The Apocalypse-a-Day Desk Calendar

Lava Scape

December 16

The Exterminator’s Visit (Part 3)

 

Ethel Finley was not an idiot.  She knew that her house was a mess.  She knew this stranger — who pretended to be a salesman or an exterminator — was actually a social worker who’d come to assess her living conditions.  He’d snoop around a while, then write some biased report that declared her unfit to live on her own.

Just because she’d let a little clutter build up.

Well, life sneaks up on you.  Possessions accumulate like the process of aging: one day everything is fresh and in its proper place, then things start to shift or fade or lose their value.  Some things she intended to throw away, and she made stacks:  a discard pile, or two, but a save pile also, and at some point she’d grown careless and just made piles, intending to sort them later.  The higher the stacks, the more remote her memory of what lay at the bottom.

She would have to sort through them.  Make sure she didn’t, as the saying goes, throw out the baby with the bathwater.  A curious phrase, implying somebody would be careless enough to throw out a baby.  Babies weren’t garbage.  Nobody’d ever think that.  Yet that’s what they tried to do when you were old:  throw you out.  Toss you from your house and into some lonely apartment, or into some nursing home where you’d be surrounded by all the other discarded antiques.

No, thank you.  She’d earned the right to stay in her house, to die here when the Good Lord decided to take her.

I only want what’s best for you, her son Arthur would say.  Well, who should judge what’s best?  You can’t just waltz into somebody’s life a few hours each week, and think you have all the answers.  She’d lived long enough to make decisions for herself.  After her husband passed, God rest his soul, Ethel had grown to appreciate solitude.  She had complete control over her day:  ate what she wanted, slept when she wanted, taped and watched her favorite TV programs when she wanted.  She phoned her grocery orders to the Food Lion and had them delivered, and looked forward to her newspaper and magazine subscriptions, and sometimes packages she ordered off the Home Shopping Channel.  This really was the best time of her life — and Arthur wanted to change that?

I think you’d be happier around people your own age.  That was another good one.  If The Doctor Show had a segment about the elderly, she’d change the channel:  too depressing.  There was a reason most programs focused on younger people:  they didn’t complain about arthritis and gout; they didn’t wear hearing aids and walk with canes or let people push them around in wheelchairs.  Nobody looks forward to a game of checkers or rummy with some half-asleep man who barely remembers your name.  She’d rather spend time watching the younger folk on her daytime plays.

Unfortunately, her television hadn’t been working lately, or the lights, or the telephone.  For the most part, she’d be fine.  She had plenty of candles to burn.  Her milk had gone warm in the icebox, but she ate her cereal dry, and still had several boxes in reserve.  No urgent need to call Food Lion for more supplies, and no need to call the power company, either:  they always fixed things on their own, flipped a switch somewhere and brought things back to life again.

The television was actually her main worry.  She didn’t care about the news — whatever happened, local or national, never had much effect on her.  But her daytime plays moved forward, even when she couldn’t watch them — the characters schemed behind each others’ backs, fought or made love, got paralyzed or died or woke from a coma.  Ethel hated to miss the excitement.

The best she could do now was thumb through an issue of Daytime Monthly.  Ethel retrieved the magazine from the “save” pile at her end of the sofa — the most recent mail and newspapers she’d received, before the curious halt in deliveries last week.  She turned to an article about her favorite show, Their World, Too.

The article reported that the actress playing Simone had not renewed her contract.  Producers hadn’t recast the role, and the character didn’t have plans to move peacefully out of town, so that meant something dramatic was bound to happen.  A car accident, a fall off a cliff or down an elevator shaft.  Or maybe she’d be killed by one of her enemies:  the woman she fired, the man she blackmailed; a bitter ex-lover, or the sister she cheated out of her inheritance.  Ethel could predict some of the things Simone would say:  “I never loved you as much as you loved yourself,” and, “Enjoy your money now.  You won’t have it for long.”  She was evil, and probably deserved to die.

That crucial episode could actually be broadcast today, and Ethel wouldn’t get to see it.  She closed her eyes, tried to envision how the drama would unfold…

 

#

 

[…continued in December 17 entry…]

December 15

The Exterminator’s Visit (Part 2)

 

William patted at his coat and pants pockets, hoping he’d remembered to bring business cards.  “I’m an exterminator, like I told you.”

“Talking about my ‘fall’,” Mrs. Finley said, clearly agitated.  “You tell my son I’m perfectly healthy.  I can take care of myself.”

Her son?  From the limited research William had done, Arthur Finley was dead.  He’d lived in the city, inside last week’s blast radius.

“I don’t know anything about your son.”  William couldn’t find his business cards, but perhaps the company letterhead would convince her.  He tore open the envelope, and unfolded the page within.

“Fallout Exterminators” appeared at the top of the letter.  Beside the company name, a cartoon cockroach loomed large over a decimated cityscape.  The client’s name and address appeared beneath, followed by a brief mission statement, then a chart listing available services and rates.

This time, the woman accepted the letter.  She held the page far away from her face, brought it closer then away again.  “After recent terrible events…,” she read aloud, then glanced up.  “What terrible events?”

William was taken aback.  How could she not know?  He glanced across the room at the antique television set.  A power cord curled behind it, the plug flat on the carpet beneath an empty wall outlet.

If he didn’t have the nerve to tell her that her son had died, he certainly didn’t have the nerve to tell her about everybody else.  Instead, William retreated into phrases from his oft-rehearsed sales pitch.  “The vermin in the, uh, surrounding regions have become increasingly resistent to conventional extermination methods.  Our free in-home inspection will help identify any potential dangers.”  He punched the word “free,” hoping it would make the woman more receptive, then added an improvised comment:  “Have you heard any unusual noises recently?  I noticed a damaged window screen outside, which could have allowed pests to enter your lovely home.”

“I might have opened the door to one of them a few minutes ago.”

Ouch.   If William saw other parts of the house, he’d have more details to discuss with her…but Mrs. Finley didn’t seem inclined to allow the free inspection.   He had one final trick, which he prefaced with an awkward grimace and a forearm cradled over his stomach.  “Do you mind if I use your bathroom?”

The request was tough for anyone to deny.  Mrs. Finley rolled her eyes, then offered directions:  “Way you came in, and straight back through the kitchen.  Turn to the left, after a stack of boxes.”

“I’ll find my way,” William said.

Easier said than done.  He lost count after the tenth stack of boxes.

 

#

 

William found himself at the bottom of a stairway.  Fortunately, he’d brought a flashlight — essential in these recent days of power outages — and he aimed the beam upward

The stairs were carpeted in the same flat-worn dark green of the living room floor.  Very little of the carpet was visible here, however:  on either side of the lowest step were waist-high stacks of newspapers and junk mail, with a thin space cleared up the middle—barely room for a single person to pass.  The pattern continued with separate stacks on each step, all the way to the landing half-way between the floors.  The cleared space got tighter at the top, an artistic vanishing point that made the distance seem farther than it actually was.  William decided to test the climb.

He was a combination mountain explorer and archeologist:  each step brought him into higher, thinner air, and carried him back in time.  The papers and receipts on the lowest step were fairly current; part-way up, dates beneath layers of dust slipped into the previous millennium.  He found a copy of Good Life Magazine, which ceased publication in 1988.  At one moment, the uneven walls of paper and junk gave him vertigo.  He reached out to steady himself, the flashlight beam wavering.  A pile of newspapers sunk under his hand, and a musty odor rose with a smoke of dust.

After the threat of gagging passed, he climbed more cautiously to the landing, where the steps continued upward at a different angle.

Except, that passage was blocked.  A similar arrangement of papers had failed to maintain its shape, with the top stacks toppling over and a piece-meal domino effect pushing more pages and junk to the bottom.  He could see the second floor, but there wasn’t a clear path to get there.  It was the old joke about the guy who literally painted himself into a corner:  Mrs. Finley had papered herself into the downstairs rooms.

The smell was worse here — mold and dust and spoiled food; sweat and unwashed clothes and rose-scented perfume.  God knows what other garbage lay festering upstairs.  “Jesus,” he said out loud.

Full-blown hoarding behavior, and it had clearly been going on for many years.  Mrs. Finley was already living in a disaster area — a breeding ground for a full variety of household pests.

He thought about whiskered mammals with sharp teeth; insect legs and fat, segmented bodies; forked tongues and red flashing eyes.  He thought of radioactive fallout soaking into the horrible vermin, transforming them into something even more hideous.

William heard a snap followed by a hiss.  He stood completely still.

Clouds of dust sputtered from the ceiling and rose from moldy stacks of newspaper, and William found himself gagging again.

This job was too big for him.  He didn’t have enough traps or pesticide canisters in the office.  Mrs. Finley didn’t need an exterminator, she needed a bulldozer.

 

#

 

[…continued in December 16 entry…]

December 14

The Exterminator’s Visit (Part 1)

 

William pressed the doorbell, a false-ivory button that had aged to the color of a coffee-stained tooth, and was surprised to hear a quick electronic octave from inside.  While he waited for a human answer, William had plenty of time to study the condition of the housefront.  In the door panels, vertical scratches of the original wood were visible beneath peeling curls of dull black paint.  The door knob was rusted; an obsolete mail slot near the bottom of the door was held shut with a piece of duct tape.  The brick facing fared better, though wooden window frames were chipped, and each of the screens had holes large enough to invite the very visitors that screens intended to keep out.  As evidence, the near window had a small graveyard of flies and moths on the ledge between the screen and the glass.  Another window had one panel patched with masking tape and cardboard.

“Be right there.”  Although muffled by the door and distance, the old woman’s voice was still loud.  He waited as the slow scuffle of feet got closer, then stopped.  William posed for the spy-hole.

“You saw the ‘No Soliciting’ sign?”  The voice was even louder; loose curls of paint vibrated from the sound waves.

In fact, there wasn’t a sign.  Perhaps a wind gust had blown it off the door, carried it along with the other trash that littered the mostly emptied neighborhood.  “I’m not a salesman,” he assured her.  “I’m an exterminator.”

More of a grunt than an answer, then a long pause before the door opened.  As he stepped inside the woman kept her back to him, already returning to wherever she’d been when he rang the bell.  He shut the door and followed, making sure not to crowd her.

The woman was taller than he expected, about 5’7”, and she walked with a slight limp.  Her slow steps found their way by instinct rather than sight; she sometimes touched a wall or brushed the corner of a stacked box, but mostly she kept her own balance.  Her long gray hair still featured a few streaks of black; strands of it flowed free, while other strands were tucked beneath a faded blue house dress.

“Like Grand Central Station around here,” she said, as if he was the latest of many visitors.

He thought, if anything, her house was like the Station’s Lost-and-Found department, with boxes and papers and clothes in abandoned piles.

William followed her into the next room, and it was like emerging from a tunnel into an open cavern.  The small living room was clean and candle-lit, with minimal furniture:  a sofa and two armchairs, two endtables and a coffee table, one bookshelf, and a television on a wooden stand.  Three bed pillows were stacked neatly at one end of the sofa, with a folded blanket draped over the back cushions.  On the opposite end, a smaller fleece blanket lay in a bundle.  The woman picked this up then spread it across her lap and legs as she sat.

William took the closest chair, which was covered in clear plastic.  It crinkled when he sat down.

“When did you fall?” he asked, referencing her slight limp.

“I’ve never fallen.  I’m very careful.”

“Of course.”  William reached inside the front pocket of his suitcoat and pulled out a sealed letter.  He turned the envelope so she could see the name printed on the front.  “You’re Mrs. Ethel Finley, correct?”

She made no movement to take the letter.  “I know what this visit is really about,” she said.  “I’ll die first.  I’ll die before I let you take me away.”

 

#

 

[…continued in December 15 entry….]

December 13

Apocalypse the 13th

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

 

Born this day in 1962, Norman Prentiss, author and daily destroyer of worlds.

December 12

Gingerbread House Day

 

One year, as part of holiday preparations, your parents bought you and your brother a Gingerbread House Kit.  The box seemed especially large to your young eyes.   A colorful photo on the lid depicted a professionally completed structure, mounted on a beautiful tabletop snowscape.

It looked like a real house, but better because it was decorated with icing and chocolate and gumdrops.

When you opened the box, the gingerbread sections of the house were all in one large compartment, with other compartments containing various candied decorations, and two large tubes of “snow” icing.  Before you even got started with the kit, your eager brother lifted up the large flat section representing the front of the house, and he accidently snapped the cookie in half.

Your dad came to the rescue, avoiding too much pre-Christmas drama, by suggesting that the snow icing could be used to hold the broken pieces together.  It wasn’t the most cosmetic solution — similar to his makeshift repairs to the family home, painting over flaws rather than fixing structural damage beneath — but at least he kept your brother from crying.

Making the gingerbread house was fun.  Dad kept his distance and you supervised, giving your brother occasional tasks to help him feel included.  Open that package of spearmint rings and spread them out on the table.  Or, Why don’t you put some jelly beans over this line of icing?

The biggest challenge, though, was to keep your brother from eating the candy.  He loved gumdrops and red-hots and peppermint sticks, and he wanted to sample items whenever he opened a plastic-sealed package.

Maybe you can have any bits of candy we don’t use in making the house…

But the kit-makers hadn’t included any extra candy.  You needed every colorful, sugary treat to make your finished gingerbread house look like the one on the box cover – with an extra, jagged line of white icing from the chimney, through an upstairs window, and beside the front door.

For your brother, the exercise provided a good lesson in restraint.  This candy wasn’t supposed to satisfy his greedy sweet tooth.  It served a higher purpose, adding holiday cheer for the whole family to appreciate.

Mom and Dad gave the gingerbread house a featured spot, placing it on a corner table in the dining room.  Sometimes your brother would ask, Can we eat it? And somebody else would reply, No, that’s just for decoration.

The gingerbread house had a slight lean to the left, but all the candy lined up perfectly along the roof-line and around windows.  With the icing tubes, you’d made realistic patches of snow and added icicles along each overhang.  It looked great.  And delicious.

A few nights later, you started thinking about the candy and the cookie pieces.  They were going to get stale, out in the open air like that.  It was for decoration, of course.  Nobody eats a house.  But it was a shame that all that sweet candy would go to waste.

At first it was only going to be one gumdrop.  While your brother and parents slept, you snuck down into the dining room and peeled a green drop from the back of the house, where nobody would notice it went missing.  It was mint-flavored, instead of lime, and it wasn’t as flavorful as the name-brand jelly candies you bought at the Six-Twelve.  You quickly overcame your disappointment, however, and pulled an orange one off the back of the house, popped it in your mouth.

Then a peppermint ball, and a few jelly beans from the roof.  You rearranged the remaining beans to disguise the theft, then slinked quietly back to your bedroom.

Each night, you stole and ate more candy from the gingerbread house.  To help cover your tracks, you mixed your own icing of confectioner’s sugar and water, “touching up” the places where you’d removed a gumball or red hot.  Candy decorations disappeared even from the front of the house, and new “icicles” appeared in their place.

During dinner, clear evidence of your crime confronted you:  that house in the corner, less colorful each day, its decorations fading or falling down as if its imaginary gingerbread owners no longer cared.

Nobody else in your family seemed to notice.

One night, you pressed too hard on a redistributed spearmint ring.  The house broke down the middle, along the previously repaired split.  Your improvised icing wasn’t strong enough to fix the damage, but you did your best, balancing the pieces like a perilous house of cards.  Before you snuck back to bed, you stole one last jelly bean.

The next morning, the house was gone.  You parents never said a word about it.

You’ve thought about that gingerbread house a lot.  Your best explanation is that Mom or Dad brushed against the display, then assumed their own clumsiness caused the structure to crumble. They threw it away, and decided not to upset you with the news.

You’ve thought about that gingerbread house a lot, because your parents are no longer here to ask them about it.  Or your brother, either.  And the actual house, the childhood home that you still live in — the building your dad repaired with paint or duct tape, doing the best he could — the actual house has started to crumble, too, from the violent winds and the lightning and the debris that fell from the sky.

Also, you suspect that looters have visited while you slept, stealing away bricks or breaking off sections of wood paneling.  It feels like the home itself has gone stale, and what remains of the walls seem to crack at random intervals, making a sound like the crunch of a greedy child biting into bits of forbidden candy.

 

December 11

The Apocalypse App

 

Imagine that, on a calendar date designated as National App Day, a previously unknown software company releases an Apocalypse App.

This particular application wouldn’t have gone through the usual approval process.  Major online retailers and cellular phone companies didn’t have an opportunity to review the source code for this piece of software.

No experts examined what the app promised.  How it worked.  What it did.

It might execute an immediate high-level calculation designed to strain the processor of a user’s device, causing a phone, tablet, or desktop computer to overheat, catch fire, explode.

It might search the user’s device for personal data, encrypted or otherwise, then redirect that information to unscrupulous international criminals.

It might secretly record video of the user’s most embarrassing moments or capture audio of insensitive remarks, then share them with people or groups most likely to be offended or amused.

It might siphon computing power across multiple devices, creating a parallel Web designed to corrupt hospital, airport, and government systems worldwide.

It might do all of these things.

As once happened with an album of songs by a pretentious rock band, imagine this app appeares on every user’s device simultaneously.  Unsought, unpurchased.

Rather than an honest icon depicting a mushroom cloud or the warning symbol for hazaderous materials, the icon for the Apocalypse App features an adorable cartoon puppy; its label name promises it will produce amusing sounds of outrageous flatulence.   Although most people will realize they didn’t purchase the app, and will ignore it, some people won’t be as cautious.

And that will be enough.

Or, imagine that the Apocalypse App doesn’t need your permission.  It already found its way onto your machine, and is working in the background.   In the time it takes you to hit the backspace key or the next-page button, the worst will have already happened.

 

 

December 10

The Manifestation (Part 9)

 

“I have a theory. But I don’t think you’ll like it.”

The scholar, Carlson, addressed the group in a private meeting room. He was the latest so‑called expert to debrief them after a session with the demon. They’d tried criminal profilers, psychologists, pathologists, police and military interrogators. The sessions produced lots of printed transcripts. Not a lot of answers.

Watkins had suggested they bring Carlson back in. Because he’d been present during the summoning, he might have extra insight. Plus, with his historical and literary knowledge, he could comb through the transcripts for any meaning that eluded the rest of them.

Myers’ first question had been, “Can we send it back where it came from?”

“We’d need to know where that was, to start with. This may be the first successful demonic summoning, at least in modern times. That fraud who led the ceremony, I’m willing to bet he’d never seen anything like it before it crossed the pentagram and ripped him to pieces.”

Carlson continued: “I believe that the forbidden texts were printed with significant flaws in the instructions, to keep an amateur from succeeding by accident. Only someone with actual training, with real understanding of passed-down lore, could decipher the texts properly.”

He stood from the table and began pacing back and forth, in full lecture mode. “I think we’ve lost that oral tradition, the inherited expertise. The only reason this ceremony worked was because its leader was Broken — and an idiot as well. He made mistakes that somehow corrected the flaws in the text; he blundered into an accurate, actual ritual.”

“But what demon did he actually call up?” Watkins asked.

This was when Carlson shared the theory they didn’t want to hear. He pointed at the stack of classified folders; combined, they were the size of three unabridged dictionaries.

“All this talk, but nothing new about the disease.” He waved over the papers, spread them out in a fan on the table top. “The demon only knows what we know. Whatever was in the minds of the people in the room during the ceremony, everyone watching from the observation booth. Things about the school, about the immediate area — including secrets even you, Commander Myers, haven’t chosen to share with us.

“But also, somehow, things from the past. Everything in the history of that place is part of what the demon is. Memories from frightened children. Embittered thoughts of juvenile delinquents. Perversities of Satanists, government bureaucrats . . .

“. . .and, worst of all, bargain hunters.”

He stopped pacing, set both hands on the table and looked down at them to offer his final summation.

“Gentlemen, you didn’t manifest the disease that’s been cursing our world. You summoned up the evil manifestation of a rummage sale!”

 

#

 

Sometimes the humans talked to it. They stayed as far away as possible, of course. Hid up in the booth and spoke through microphones.

Cowards.

Other times they let it watch television to keep from getting too bored or angry. They had replaced the scoreboard with a large‑screen monitor, mounted behind a piece of shatterproof plexi‑glass.

Once in a while, it saw some interesting bargains on the Home Shopping Channel.

The demon sat on a large makeshift couch, a bulky wooden contraption the humans had pieced together from the worst rummage discards. Whatever the demon couldn’t break easily.

It sensed people outside sometimes, particularly the large weekend crowd once a month. It couldn’t see them, but sniffed at the air like a child trying to smell cake and icing through the window of a closed bakery.

The Rummage Demon pressed his wooden pointer against the remote control. The television had switched to the golf network by accident. But now the channel wouldn’t change.

“Friggin’ remote,” the demon said, and shook it. A plastic compartment clicked open and two “AA” batteries fell to the floor.

“Typical.” It threw the remote into a corner pile of defective controls.

“Deitrich!” the demon yelled.

Send me back or kill me, the Rummage Demon thought.

Or find something for me to do . . . .

 

#          #          #

December 9

The Manifestation (Part 8)

 

Outside, everyone heard a huge crash.

Jake turned his head. It sounded like the door of the school had smashed open.

A woman yelled. A young child started to wail.

But the door was intact. Behind him to the left, a mother snatched a large plastic contraption away from her son. A piece had fallen off onto a competitor’s table and had knocked over a display of wooden alphabet blocks.

“Adam, I told you not to touch anything!”

Jake recognized the yellow plastic as the boxing platform for a vintage set of Rock’em Sock’em Robots. The red robot was still attached to the platform; the blue one was partially buried in a pile of wooden blocks in front of the table.

The mother shrugged at the dealer. “He’s Broken,” she explained, indicating her son. She turned to Adam, told him, “This is coming out of your allowance.”

Jake braced himself as the woman took her wallet from her purse. A pristine set of Rock’em Sock’em Robots was rare, and he guessed the dealer wouldn’t give her a special price. Once she heard the amount, there would be more screaming.

 

#

 

A face slid down the glass of the observation booth. Not a head — just the face. Eyeless and bloodied, the features retained an expression of agonizing pain.

The irony didn’t escape Watkins. The auditorium had been built for throwing basketballs at hoops. The obese demon couldn’t reach the booth, didn’t have the leg strength to jump toward them, so it tossed body parts at the glass front.

A smear of blood followed the peeled face, which clumped at the bottom ledge like a soaked washrag. Splashes of red dotted the window from the earlier thumps of a foot, several hands, a skull‑tattooed chunk of shoulder blade.

And, tangled in the top corner of the window frame, the Creep’s scalped mullet.

Deitrich was the only survivor. He cowered against the wall, whispered pleas for help into his microphone.

“I will spare you.” The demon spoke in a low, measured voice. Each syllable got the same emphasis. “You can tell them what I’ve done.”

“Oh, god. Oh, god.” Deitrich shook his head, tried to look away as the demon moved closer. “Everywhere the smell of urine and excrement and blood. Its hands — oh, god — they peeled off skin…”

Next to Deitrich was the only exit from the auditorium level, a steel door set firmly in solid, reinforced concrete.

“Keypad,” the demon said, and looked at Deitrich.

“I don’t know the combination!” He whined at the demon and at Meyers simultaneously. Then, in a conspirator’s whisper: “Can you tell me? Oh, please tell me.”

Commander Meyers remained silent.

The demon pursed its full lips at Deitrich. “That’s okay.” It swiveled its head, looked up over its shoulder towards Meyers in the observation booth. “I know it.”

The snail hand reached toward Deitrich, level with his face. Deitrich whimpered. Then the hand lowered to his front pocket, stuck onto the tip of a mechanical pencil and lifted it out.

Detrich continued his whispered commentary. “The texture of his hand, how it ripped people’s skin — I thought it was ridged and scaled, like a cheese grater. But it’s thousands of hungry little mouths. I felt the bursts of air on my face. And the smell of tiny breaths like hot garbage. Spoiled meat. Rancid — ”

The demon’s arm whipped forward, cracked the side of Deitrich’s head. “Nobody asked you to insult me,” the demon said as Deitrich’s body dropped unconscious to the floor.

Watkins figured out the reason for the pencil. The flat undersides of the demon’s hands couldn’t work a keypad. But with the pencil extended as a modified finger, it would be able to punch in the sequence.

“Do you really think it knows the code?”

“We’ll find out soon enough.” Meyers remained calm, at least outwardly. Was this the usual objective stance of a commander? He’s safe, even if the rest of the world is outside, unaware.

Watkins began to panic, turned to Hilliard. “Can’t you reset the access code? Reboot the security system?”

Hilliard shook his head. “Not from here. That door isn’t on the same circuit.”

The demon’s body loomed large over the door, blocked it almost entirely from view. They heard three slow beeps from the keypad, waited for the final fourth.

Then:

“Damn.”

A metallic scrape. The keypad panel snapped off the door frame and crashed to the floor.

“Damn it to hell,” the demon said. “I’m Broken.”

 

#

 

[…continued in December 10 entry…]

December 8

The Manifestation (Part 7)

 

Deitrich was the lucky team member Myers sent out of the booth. The metal door closed behind him as he sidestepped onto the upper platform. Watkins sympathized with Deitrich’s reluctant movements, his back sliding against the wall as he edged close to the stairs, the click of his heels on the metal steps, the frantic gusts of his nervous breaths into the mouthpiece.

Impatient, Meyers poked at the speaker button on the front console: “Bring him out. Fast!”

Carlson shrugged. “Maybe the rest of them can recover the integrity of the ritual.” He didn’t sound too optimistic.

The chaos below was not encouraging. Hooded figures lost their cool confidence when they noticed the ceremony was actually working. A few of them started to scream, their cries so loud Watkins almost worried they’d be audible outside the concrete building.

And what had the commander hoped Deitrich might accomplish? The little guy tried to herd people back into place and restore order, but everyone ignored him. Three sat on the floor and cried like babies. Several ran to the edges of the auditorium; one pressed random numbers into the keypad that locked the exit door. Watkins wondered if they could see more in that darkness than he could from the relative safety of the control room.  Perhaps there was something in the auditorium, in the air itself, that added to their terror.

When Deitrich moved to The Creep’s side, tried to pull him away from the pentagram’s edge, he wouldn’t budge. The highly recommended sorcerer…reduced to a useless, rigid scarecrow.

The Creep shouldn’t have been broken. At least, he wasn’t that morning when they brought him in, when they tested all thirteen “occult specialists” on the Efficiency Abacus, a patented contraption that predicted infection. It looked like a puzzle, complete with sliding levers and spring‑loaded triggers. If you completed a complex series of motions without breaking the device, you were probably “clear.” Probably.

Most likely, The Creep had contracted it today. Right in the middle of the ceremony.

And now the darkness tightened. Threads of black wove themselves together, flattened and glistened like a diver’s wetsuit.

A large leg stretched and tore out of the black casing. It was covered with hair and tapered to a hoof as big as a shoebox.

The darkness shrugged and fell to the ground. A large shape remained standing, an obscene pile that began to stretch its four flabby arms.

Was this, Watkins thought, was this the image of what has gone wrong in the world? It’s a horrible mess, a travesty of creation. It was the size and shape of an obese grizzly bear, its face the strange blues, reds, and grays of a baboon, with obscene, sensual, fish‑like lips. The torso was covered with scabby plates that cracked apart in the rolls of fat. Each muscular arm ended in a domed shell with a slimy black underside, as if the demon wore giant snails instead of gloves.

The horrible scene below seemed distant and unreal. Carlton spoke as if he whispered to a row of friends in a movie theater. “It shouldn’t be able to step outside the pentagram.”

The demon responded in a low, mechanical voice. “True. If the pentagram’s been done correctly.” A wet hoof slimed over the edge of the chalk outline, smeared it outward. “It wasn’t.”

Myers jumped forward, rolled Hilliard’s chair away from the control panel. “Christ, lock it down!” He entered a key‑code and pressed a red button. In response, a geared mechanism began to grind. The metal stairs slid away from the entrance to the observation booth.

Now the demon couldn’t get up to them via the stairs.

“What about Deitrich?” Hilliard asked. He swiveled in his chair, waived his arms in disbelief. “And why isn’t there some weapon power here?”

Meyers ignored him, picked up the phone to call for reinforcements.

“We didn’t expect anything to happen,” Watkins said. “Did you?”

“There’s about 300 people outside,” Meyers said into the telephone.

Watkins looked at the names on his clipboard. If he’d bothered to match all of these names to faces — if he could see their features beneath the hoods, their bodies snapped and crumpled inside their sackcloth robes — he could have crossed out each of their names in turn as they were destroyed.

#

[…continued in December 9 entry…]

December 7

The Manifestation (Part 6)

 

Jake McNaughton moved a plastic‑sleeved copy of Sticky Fingers to the front of his display table. He’d priced it higher than it was worth, not really hoping to sell it. It was a good eye‑catcher that lured nostalgic baby boomers to his table: they wouldn’t fork over sixty dollars for a Rolling Stones classic on vinyl, but after looking at it for a while they might plop down two bucks for something by Journey or, God forbid, Quiet Riot.

Most of the people who bought rock on vinyl no longer owned turntables. They bought strictly for the sweet memory of flashy cardboard covers, grooved plastic held gingerly by the edges, a needle dropped with nervous precision near the start of a favorite song. They’d slide a record out of the paper sleeve once in a while, spin it on air . . . then stream a pirated “Best of” collection by the same artist.

Jake’s profits from rock or pop records came from the quantity. Most people visited the rummage sale to spend a quick five or ten, and he had plenty of things in that price range. For the real quality sales, he needed the true collectors and the vinyl purists.

An old Miles Davis classic, or a good‑condition philharmonic of a Mozart symphony — yeah, those babies could draw the checkbooks out. Jake didn’t accept the idea that sound had a color, that the vinyl brought out a “warm” tone you could only get from analog recordings played through tube speakers. He preferred digital with its easier storage and as clean a sound as any human ear could really detect. But plenty of his regular customers believed analog recordings were superior, and that attitude helped keep him in business.

That, and the vague notion, in these Broken times, that any old fashioned technology might be more reliable.

His business was popular enough to earn him a good table, behind the sidewalk just near the school’s entrance — a high traffic spot convenient to the parking lot.

A balding man in his late forties returned a marked‑up copy of Who’s Next to the front display, shaking his head. He picked up Love Gun by Kiss, handed Jake a five dollar bill.

“This was the first record I ever bought,” the man said. He needed to explain, like a teenager buying pornography.

“You wanted the best, you got the best,” Jake said, and counted out three dollars in change. Then he snatched at the customer’s jacket sleeve before the guy could step away. “Did you hear that?”

“What?”

“I don’t know. Really faint. Like screaming.”

“Oh, yeah.” The customer pulled his sleeve from Jake’s grip and backed away from the table. “Place is haunted, don’t you know?”

Right. Probably nothing.

Anyway, Jake couldn’t expect his customers to distinguish subtle sounds. Not with all the kids running around out here, their parents too self‑absorbed to silence them.

You could drop a bomb on this crowd of bargain hunters, and nobody would notice.

 

#

 

[…continued in December 8 entry…]

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