Norman Prentiss

Excerpts from The Apocalypse-a-Day Desk Calendar

Lava Scape

March 19

Return of the Swallows


Every year, at the end of a week of festivities, a flock of migratory swallows used to arrive at the Great Stone Church in San Juan Capistrano, greeted with cheers from sightseers.  The sky was black with the shapes of birds returning from winter in Goya, Argentina.  The swallows built nests beneath the arches and eaves of the ruined church.

In recent years, few swallows came to the Mission San Juan Capistrano.  Restoration of parts of the ruined church destroyed many nests and nesting places.  Man-made nests were placed beneath a prominent archway, hoping to tempt annual visitors, but the effort failed.

The celebrations continue, however.  Tourists from all over gather to celebrate the week-long Fiesta de las Golondrinas, and on March 19 (the feast of St. Joseph), mariachi bands and Spanish and Native American dancers entertain the vast crowd.  At noon, a bell-ringing ceremony commences, calling the birds.  Perhaps a few will come, but never in the tremendous numbers of the past.

We are always looking for them, a resident says this year, her face brimming with unfounded hope.

Tourists turn to the bank of bell towers, raising their phones to record the clamor.  They photograph the swinging ropes, the clappers striking metal bells, the scenic sun-dappled stone of the ruined church, but few of them bother to look to the sky.

A shadow falls over the Mission, darkening the images on camera and cell phone screens.  A distant, overhead squawking begins to soar over the clamor of the bells.

Theyre back, someone yells, and cameras and phones swivel, necks crane upward.

Like in years past, like in the famous song, the swallows come back to Capistrano.   

The sky is almost entirely black, but it is a black that ripples like an ocean.  Wings flap, and the cry of multiple birds is so loud that many tourists cover their ears.  The bellringers stop pulling the ropes, so the birds make the only sound.

It is not a birdsong or mating call.  The birds sound angry.

 This is more than I remember, an old gentleman remarks.  Many, many more.

Its as if there is not enough room in the sky.  The birds fight for space, and the dark ocean of feathers seethes with violent waves.

A group of tourists scream and jump away from where theyve been standing.  On the ground, a dying bird flaps its wings.  Its eyes have been pecked out.  The feather pattern, usually a mix of grays with white patches, is entirely dark with grime, as if the bird has been rolled in tar or oil.  The bird has four legs that struggle in the air as it dies.

Other birds begin to fall from the sky, their grime-soaked bodies pecked and bleeding, some with two eyes pecked out, but another pair above, blinking; most with extra legs, a few with an extra head. 

Tourists and locals alike seek shelter amid the ruined stones of the Mission, unaware what disaster struck in the southern hemisphere…only to migrate here in a dark, bilious cloud, then continue to spread as dead and dying birds rain onto the church courtyard.



March 8

International Womens Day


The Appointed Official stepped to the podium and spoke towards the dimensional portal:

Let me explain to you the importance of International Womens Day.  I have actually proposed the name be changed to Universal Womens Day, to broaden the scope even further — and to reflect our recent change in circumstances.

Youre welcome.

The history of this observance dates back more than a century, when women protested to gain the right to vote and to improve working conditions.  Progress has been slow, but steady, and everyone agrees we are in much better shape than we were even ten years ago.

Well, not counting the latest event, of course.  This situation isnt helping anyone.

Im reminded of those concurrent protests, dubbed A Day Without Women.  Around the world on March 8th, female workers declined to show up for their jobs:  some schools, lacking sufficient teachers, were forced to close; parents struggled to find daycare for their kids; nursing care suffered as well.  Of course, some professions were hit harder than others, but there was a definite impact.  Things kind of fell apart, for a day.

Message received, loud and clear.

So Im telling you that you dont really need to make the point youre making now.  Youve convinced us.  Well have flowers for you, boxes and boxes of chocolates.  More fancy dinners, and more compliments.  Youll definitely feel more appreciated, which is what we all know this protest is about.

From the dimensional portal, the Respondent cleared her throat, paused before speaking:

Are you finished?  Because, with all due respect, sir, thats exactly the attitude we feared from you.  Its the reason we left in the first place.  Its the reason we wont be coming back.

She waved a hand, and the portal screen slowly darkened, her image and voice fading, as the Appointed Official wondered what life would be like from now on, wondered how long civilization could remain viable, wondered what it was about his speech, exactly, that had been so terribly wrong.



March 5

The Last _______ on Earth


The Last Author on Earth sat in an armchair, pen raised over a pad of lined paper.

His laptop battery had drained months ago.  There was no electricity to power his desktop computer.

He’d considered trying to find an old-fashioned typewriter in the city’s looted pawn shops, but decided the streets were too dangerous.

Besides, pen and paper was the classic way to write fiction.  The civilized scratch of blue-black ink, some argued, matched the natural flow of a writer’s ideas.

The Last Author on Earth still wasn’t certain what topic to choose.  Many guidebooks suggested it was best to write about what you know.  He began in longhand at the top of the page:

I am alone.  The world has ended.

He crossed through the lines.  Too close to home.  And where would that story go?  He couldn’t imagine.

He tore off the page and crumpled it up.  He tossed the ball at a wastebasket across the room, where it landed amid other false starts.

Back when he was One of Many Authors, he’d responded to an interviewer’s question about why he enjoyed writing.  Thats easy, he said.  The characters.  I never know what my characters will do, what path theyll make the story follow.  They always surprise me.  Theyre the best companions I could ever imagine.

He now knew that fictional characters weren’t enough.  He needed food and warmth and escape from tedium.  He needed a stranger’s voice, a person with real opinions, and maybe a body he could reach out and touch.

The Last Author on Earth considered all the characters from all the stories he’d ever written.  Their bland, boring voices sounded too much like his own.

He wrote a new story that killed them all.

February 24

The Boy Who Avoided His Chores

(for Wilhelm Karl Grimm, born Feb. 24, 1786)


A certain boy hid behind his family barn, trying to escape his daily chores.  He knew his father waited for him on the other side of the large building, with pails for transporting gallons of water and fresh milk, shovels for shifting heavy piles of earth and manure.  The boy preferred to lie in the grass, watching for patterns in the clouds above.

One cloud had the shape of an old witch.  As the cloud moved across the sky, winds sculpted this decrepit shape into the soft image of a young maiden, her arms outstretched.  A slow wind further altered the cloud, cutting off the young girl’s hands.

He was startled out of his reverie by a deep voice like his father’s.  “Boy, why dost thou lounge with no cares?  Have you not chores to complete?”  The language was more formal than his father used, and the boy realized the words came not from the other side of the barn but from the sky.  He noticed a different cloud, in the shape of a devil’s face.

The boy did not answer.

The lips of the cloud-face curled in a dark smile.  “Are you too frightened of me to speak?”

In response, the boy lifted a finger to cover his own mouth, and the devil cloud understood.  “You are a mere youth, and have not learned fear,” the devil said.  “You are merely worried our voices will call attention from your father on the other side of the barn.  He will find you, and make you carry pails of water and fresh milk, and shift heavy piles of earth and filthy manure.”

The boy nodded.

“Well, have no worries.  My voice meets your ears alone; your father cannot hear me.  And I can make you a deal that will ensure you never again must carry out your father’s orders.”

As the boy looked up in the sky, the devil’s face did not transform in shifting winds.  But the boy began to see something different, nonetheless.  He began to see the face of a friend.

“All I ask,” the smiling devil continued, “is that you grant me whatever lies behind the barn.  In return, I promise you will never again suffer through daily chores that bring no benefit to yourself.”

Although spiteful, the boy was not stupid.  He remembered the tale of “The Maiden with No Hands.”  In that story, the devil takes the shape of an old man, tempting a miller with untold riches, if he will simply give up that which stands behind his mill.  Thinking the tempter refers only to an apple tree, the miller agrees — only to learn that his beloved daughter, at that moment, was sweeping the ground beneath the tree.  The girl was too innocent, “her hands were clean,” so the devil demanded that her hands be chopped off before she was given to him.

The barn loomed high behind the young boy, and he couldn’t see to the other side.  He whispered to escape his father’s notice, hoping the devil could hear.  “Is my father on the other side of this building?”

“Yes,” the devil’s voice boomed from the cloud.

The boy knew that, unlike the miller in the story, he could win his bet with the devil.  The miller loved his daughter, was agonized at the thought of severing her hands with his own axe.  In contrast, the spiteful boy’s hatred for chores outweighed any slight love he held for his father.  He would cut off his father’s hands at the devil’s direction, if that were indeed the last chore he ever had to perform.

“I agree,” the boy said.

And the cloud thundered.  Bolts of lightning struck from the devil’s eyes, arcing over the barn.  The boy crouched down, huddled against the building’s frame, covering his ears as the earth shook.  Above, dark funnels spun forth from the devil’s nostrils, and a hurricane wind emerged from the evil cumulonimbus mouth.  Torrential rains fell from the sky.

After what seemed like an eternity, the storm activity ceased.  The devil’s face no longer appeared in the sky, but the boy could swear that he heard laughter.

He stood, and collected himself.  A small pang of remorse hit him, over the sacrifice of his father.  He was surprised at how dramatic the devil’s actions had been, just to take a single victim.

He turned, and the side of the barn loomed ahead of him.  Standing this close, it was as if the building blocked out the entire world beyond.

A deathly quiet beckoned from the other side.


February 14

Valentine’s Day


Some spiteful magic took away our ability to love.

Cards in red envelopes remain undelivered; long-stemmed roses wilt in flower shop windows.  Boxes covered in red foil gather dust on drug store shelves.

Messages fade on hard, chalky candy:  the Conversation Hearts, instead of “Kiss Me” or “Be Mine,” might as well say “Let’s Not” and “Go Away.”

As some scientists and philosophers have argued, love is a survival instinct, encouraging us to perpetuate the species.  Many people hope that only the symbols have disappeared — the merchandise with simple poetry, rather than the deep emotions they pretend to represent.

Unfortunately, that wish is unfounded.  Any cursory look at how we treat each other proves the point.

However, there is a silver lining.

Not all of us look forward to Valentine’s Day.  February 14 has been an annually recurring insult to those among us who have never known love.  If our days are incomplete, they are not always unpleasant.

We are here to reassure you:

People will continue to share homes, in order to defray costs.  They will split chores, gather to share food and drink.

Societies will still create and raise children.

Life will go on.

Its not the end of the world.  It really isnt.


February 4

Over the Bay Bridge

(an Odd Adventure with your Other Father)


Celia, the first time I thought the world ended was your other fathers fault.  Of course, neither of us knew it at the time.  We were just two guys, fresh in love and fresh out of college, little dreaming what odd adventures awaited us.  Ill tell you the story again…”




May of 1985, our graduation ceremony was hours behind us, and we rode Jack’s punch-red VW Beetle across the wide span of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge. Jack was driving, stubborn since it was his car, but he should have surrendered the wheel to me. He hated bridges in general, but the Bay Bridge was its own kind of beast: three lanes wide on the westbound span and 4.3 miles from end to end.

Jack was tall, so he had to lean close so his head didn’t hit the roof of the small car. His hands gripped the wheel like he was ready to pull it from the dashboard. He was like somebody’s nervous grandmother sitting atop two phonebooks — which was funny, since he zipped that Bug like a racecar through the small-town streets of Kent County, Maryland.

The problem was the water that stretched around us for miles on either side, a calm light blue with sun glimmers on tiny peaks. Jack had never learned how to swim.

Two miles in, and I worried maybe he was going to pass out. I touched the top of his knee with a supportive squeeze, and his leg jolted against the accelerator in nervous response.

Okay. Maybe touching him wasn’t such a good idea.

And all the while I’m thinking What’s the worst that could happen? It’s not like Jack’s tiny car could crash like a battering ram through the side wall, sending us on a deadly plummet toward the Bay.

June air rushed through the car’s open windows, like a blast from a hand dryer. Our lane had a metal lattice section down the middle, making the tires hum whenever Jack drifted off center.

“It’s pretty solid construction. Concrete and steel cable.”

“Thanks,” Jack said through clenched teeth. Guess I forgot that logic couldn’t compete with somebody’s long-held phobia.

Then one of the steel suspension cables snapped. A dozen or so car lengths ahead, the bridge cracked down the middle as if a giant zipper-tab dragged open the section of metal lattice in our lane.

Gusts of air through the car window, tires on asphalt, the toy-car putter of the VW engine, and my scream.

More cables snapped. Ahead, cars in our lane dipped into the opening — a widening split-span of asphalt and steel and concrete, the flicker of water shining beneath, sun flecks now sharp as broken glass. The sides of the bridge buckled, and cars in the outside lanes began to tumble and slide toward the gaping crevice.

What do you say to someone when you’re both about to die? I shouted Jack’s name, said “love,” then spread one arm across his chest while the other hand gripped the shoulder strap of my seatbelt.

I might have uttered the word “brake” also, in the vain hope that slowing the car would give us a chance.

Jack kept driving at his steady pace. The car’s hood flew up, blocking the view through the windshield. I closed my eyes, fighting the sick-stomach sensation of falling, falling.


“Jesus, Shawn. I’m having enough trouble on this damn bridge without you spazzing out.”

Jack’s hands granny-gripped the steering wheel. The hood was fine. The road ahead was smooth. I turned in my seat: through the rear windshield, the intact bridge stretched back as far as I could see, cars calm in their respective lanes.

I must have fallen asleep, had a nightmare . . .

“Pretty solid construction. All concrete and steel.” Jack’s imitation of my voice wasn’t very good, but the sarcasm was pretty effective.

I was trembling. My heartbeat raced, and my breaths started to wheeze.

And since my asthma never seemed serious enough to merit an inhaler, there was nothing to do but wait it out.

Jack attempted humor, to distract me from my tight, desperate gasps. “What was in the punch at the graduation picnic? Glad I didn’t drink any.” The comment actually made things worse. I was drugged, having a bad trip. That meant more awful images were on their way.

Don’t think of anything bad, I told myself.

Bright colors. Flowers. Kittens and rainbows.

Don’t think of a rock smashing through the windshield. Don’t think of a bolt of lightning flashing toward us. Don’t think about a nest of spiders in the seat well, an egg sack bursting open as newborns pour out, the tickle of a thousand tiny legs that crawl beneath the cuff of my pants.

Yeah, none of that happened. No more awful hallucinations.

At least, not yet




Later I discovered that Jack had unintentionally projected his own fears into my mind — a strange ability he eventually learned to control.

Celia, it may have been the first, but it wasnt the only time your other father showed me the end of the world.




Authors Note:  Todays entry exists in the world of my first novel, Odd Adventures with your Other Father.  If you’re enjoying this or other posts on the Apocalypse-a-Day blog, please consider reading more of Jack and Shawns Odd Adventures by clicking the appropriate link:  Amazon US, Amazon Canada.

January 20

Alien Invasion Scenario #3-X

The ships visited a year ago today, but we didn’t realize it. Their hulls were shaped like clouds, and they reflected our skies back at us. Waves of distortion fooled human equipment, so no warning blips appeared on our monitors.

At the surface level, the visitors assumed the shape of our best people — politicians, athletes, school teachers, police officers, celebrities. Behaviors changed, so that people became almost unrecognizable.

Politicians fought with each other. They lied, and made decisions that weren’t in the public’s best interest. Baseball and football players grew unnaturally strong; in post-game interviews, they spouted foolish platitudes about teamwork and good sportsmanship.

Math teachers invented complex methods to solve simple equations. English teachers found newer, shorter books that were  more tedious than longer ones they’d taught previously; they changed rules of spelling and grammar more quickly than students could learn them.

Meanwhile, police officers beat and shot citizens they were supposed to protect. Movie stars who played admirable characters on the screen slipped into immoral behavior in their private lives, becoming poor role models for our nation’s impressionable youth.

The invasion happened a year ago, or two. Or maybe a decade ago. But to you it seems like it happened overnight. And now you know that society is doomed.

January 3

Anniversary of a 1958 Fire at the Top of the Eiffel Tower


“The one in Paris is much bigger.”

“Oh, you’ve seen it, have you?”

The two maintenance workers walked past the amusement park replica of the Eiffel Tower.  The top of its metal skeleton was visible from the stretch of I-95 north of Richmond.  Up close, in a park emptied for the season, the structure was even more impressive.

Though at 300 feet, the replica was a scant one-third the height of the Paris original.

“Yeah, my family’s from there.” Peter used his broom to push more garbage into the dustbin.  The park had a rare unseasonable event a few days ago, to offer an alternative New Year’s celebration.  Families bundled in winter coats to ride roller coasters and spider cars, eat candied apples and rocket pops, and pretend they vacationed in Paris as fireworks shone through bars of the looming metal structure.

After the January 1 break, it was taking them two full days to clean up.  Streamers and confetti were more stubborn than typical summertime trash.  A rainstorm had turned the paper into mush that resisted easy sweeping.

Mon dieu, his co-worker Blake said.  “I should call you Pierre.”

“Keep sweeping.”

But Peter didn’t follow his own advice.  He leaned against the broom handle, his eyes drawn to the top of the tower.  “You know, the real one?  It caught fire in 1958, this very day.  I remember the date, ‘cause my mom told me she was there.”

“No kidding?”  Blake took out a cigarette, feigning slight interest.

“Yeah.  Way she tells it, her little sister was all excited.  The fire lit the tower at the top, and sis said it looked like a giant candle.  Mom, a know-it-all preteen at the time, decided to taunt her a bit.  Said something like, ‘But Annabelle, dear.  Who, or what, do you suppose, lit that candle?’”

Blake thumbed the roller on his lighter, but the flame didn’t catch.

“Thing is, they were far enough away,” Peter continued.  “So they hadn’t felt scared.  But when Mom looked into her sister’s face, she knew she’d gone too far.  Anabelle’s eyes went wide, holding back tears.  The poor kid imagined some hideous giant stomping through the city, lighting the tops of every tall building.”

Blake thumbed the lighter again, to no effect.

“Her little sister’s fear was infectious.  My mom was older, so she could imagine more dreadful scenes:  enemy warplanes overhead, dropping bombs; saboteurs breaking into national structures, connecting dynamite to a timed fuse; comets tearing through the sky, brushing rooftops, flaming ash falling like deadly rain.  Mom couldn’t sleep that night.  Her sister’s fright made her believe it could happen.  The world was actually going to end.”

Blake’s lighter sparked, finally caught.

High above, the top of the Eiffel Tower replica burst into flame.

From surrounding cities echoed the sound of distant explosions, like the footsteps of some hideous giant.

January 1

New Year’s Day

Your head is pounding. You should have taken it easy last night, but your friends were in a partying mood and you had to keep up with them.

Everything after 10 pm is a blank. That was when you accepted a shot glass filled with a green glowing liquid. “Let’s toast two hours early,” your best friend said, raising his own tiny flourescent glass. If you sang “Auld Lang Syne” later that night, there would have been a noticeable slur in your off-key voice.

You’re lying on your stomach now, but you don’t remember how you made it into your bed.  You hope you didn’t drive yourself home.

Your head feels like it’s in a metal vice, even though your cheek is pressed into a soft pillow.  You struggle to move, but it’s almost as if another person is lying on top of you.  That person has duplicated your position exactly: legs over yours; arms over yours; head pressing heavy against yours, ear matched to ear.  You find it difficult to move.

The building around you groans, and you notice a spreading crack in the drywall beside your headboard. You imagine another house on top of your house, pressing down until concrete begins to crumble and support beams buckle.

Another body climbs onto the person atop your back, and the extra weight makes it hard for you to breathe.  A second house stacks above your home, and the entire building shakes. More cracks appear in the drywall, and your head throbs in agony.

The extra bodies are an illusion, as are the extra houses–but the weight, the extra weight, continues to increase. You think of the ball that dropped in Times Square last night, as it does every year to signal the New Year. Although you don’t remember seeing it on television this time, you’re certain it happened.

Something else happened. What if, the morning after the ball dropped in Times Square, your planet hit a disturbance in its orbit?  What if Earth also dropped like a ball?

In response, gravity shifted.

You feel it now: your planet spinning with different force, another body on your back, another building crushing your home.

Your head keeps pounding.  The walls fall.