Norman Prentiss

Excerpts from The Apocalypse-a-Day Desk Calendar

Lava Scape

November 9

Carl Sagan (b. 1934)

 

“Do you like this form?” your great-great grandfather asks.  “Does it bring you comfort?”

You’re not really sure how close an approximation it is to your ancestor’s voice.  You’ve never met him, after all.  A few sepia-toned photographs, only, and no extant audio.

And this house, and the car, and the land and sky surrounding:  a familiar place that’ve you’ve never visited.  The world is grainy.  The colors are all wrong:  like a retouched black-and-white photograph, fed through a random, computer-colorization process.

“I’m not sure,” you say.  “I’m not sure I’ll ever be comfortable again.”

“Be that as it may.”  Your great-great grandfather stops, not realizing he’s misused the idiomatic phrase.

“Explain how you found me.”

Great-great grandfather reaches into the automobile — what would have been called a roadster in its day, no windows or roof, but in its time it would have had a more attractive color than the oddly shimmering gray gelatin coating its chassis — and he retrieves a battered metal box.   “From this,” he says, opening it.  He pulls out flat pieces of broken circuit boards, a few data-filled silicon chips hanging on like spiders.

The time capsule!  A simple contest you’ve participated in with your mother several years ago:  a modern equivalent to scrapbooking, but with recent exponential advantages in data compression and storage.  Gone were the days when Carl Sagan and his Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence initiative helped design a single bronze plaque with limited information:  a map of the solar system, a diagram of a human body, and a recording of a single piece of classical music.  Today’s technology could fit the same information onto the head of a virtual pin…leaving plenty of room to spare, to the point where a syndicated daytime talk show could invite viewers the chance to digitize their family memories into exhaustive archives that, for a hundred lucky winners, could be shot into space aboard the latest long-range exploratory satellite.

You reach behind your ear, feel the bump of the locator chip embedded beneath your skin.  That identifier would have linked your physical body to the family scrapbook — electronic photos and documents dating back several generation, sound and video files representing more recent memories in detail.

“We want you to be comfortble,” the being masquerading as your great-great grandfather says.  “A familar face and place.”  He indicates the old-fashioned home behind him, its bricks a sickly greenish-yellow.  Instead of blue, the sky above shimmers like the surface of a polluted lake; the grass and ground below offer the pink and red pallate of open flesh-wounds.

Your stomach lurches, as if you’re in an elevator that descends too quickly, dropping past the basement and continuing to fall.  “Couldn’t you have found better images to recreate?”

“Be that as it may,” your great-great grandfather says.  “We didn’t have the right programs to open the files.  Much of the data was corrupted.  You were the only one we could rescue.”

“Rescue?”

The gray gelatin car, the green- and yellow-bricked house, the swamp-polluted sky and the pustule ground and the sepia ancestor, all flash away for a moment.  You’re in a white room, everything white, except for a window or projection screen along one wall depicting an empty portion of space that should reveal the pale blue dot of your planet. Sepia great-great grandfather raises an arm to attempt a gesture of comfort, but it’s not an arm, and the colors aren’t sepia, and the texture where a face might be seems to bubble and flutter and ooze all at the same time.

You close your eyes.  “Bring it back,” you say through tears.  “Make things the way they were.”

 

November 8

1895 — Wilhelm Conrad Rontgen discovers X-rays

 

The skeletons have become less desperate.

They’ve settled into their daily lives.

For Reuben, that meant it was a little less frightening to wander the neighborhood.  Things had progressed a long way from that terrible afternoon when he was getting a diagnostic X-ray and a series of radioactive explosions landed outside the hospital.  A mob of survivors rushed the building, their skin and muscle and hair and clothing apparently whisked off their bodies in the respective blasts.

Now, skeleton children played stick ball in the street.   A taller group of bones window-shopped outside the ruins of an antique store, and a skeleton with a curved spine slumped in a park bench and stared with empty eye sockets at ashen ground.

In an alley, two standing skeletons pressed against each other in a familiar display of furtive intimacy.  Reuben couldn’t identify the genders of either party, but one had pressed the other against the wall, his bony hands moving across a tibula or ribcage as if playing a musical instrument.  Their skulls pressed close together at the jaw,  teeth almost touching, and Reuben imagined he could hear a scraping of enamel… and, lower, a grind of hip bone against hip bone.

He knew it wasn’t proper to stare, but told himself he wanted to ensure the contact was consensual — that the female or male form against the wall permitted these roaming bones.  The other set of hands:  were they guiding, or attempting to push away?

A louder series of clacks and rattles caught his attention.  The elderly skeleton had risen from the park bench, and grabbed at Reuben’s lapel.  Something about the posture, and the aggressive gesture, suggested an elderly man.  If Reuben reached up to the skull, he would likely feel bristles of beard around the clacking jaw-line.

But it wasn’t polite to touch strangers.  And Reuben didn’t want to get bitten.

The stooped skeleton blocked his path, jawbone moving up and down in a vain attempt to form words.  They’d be angry words, Reuben thought.  The jaw was practically snapping, like a rabid dog.

Then the bony hand, slightly gnarled from rheumatoid arthritis, released Reuben’s lapel and joined its partner to mime repetitive lifting motions toward the snapping teeth.

Food, Reuben finally realized.  He’s asking for food.

Reuben did some miming of his own, arms out to suggest empty pockets, nothing to offer.  Which was true.  Food was scarce, and he was as hungry as the rest of them.

As the skeleton lost interest and turned away, Reuben noticed remnants of undigested sandwich suspended beneath the man’s ribcage, and a trail of chewed food still sliding down the esophagus tract beside the curved spinal column.

Some nerve, Reuben thought.  He’s eaten more recently than I have.

He checked back in the alley.  The amorous couple was gone.

Perhaps they found a room.

Reuben turned back to the broken sidewalk, prepared to walk further in the blocks of his ruined city, and he almost collided with another skeleton.

This one stood straight, almost matching Reuben’s own height.  The skeleton might even be one of the lovers he’d spied on earlier, but he couldn’t be certain.

As was often the case these days, he wished he’d been a better student of anatomy.

Clacks and rattles, and the bones moved in front of him.  The jaw attempted speech, and the skull tilted to one side as if waiting for an answer.

Reuben didn’t know what to say.  Didn’t know if the holes in the side of the skull led to a functioning set of eardrums, or even if bone conduction would be sufficient to detect his speech.

“I’m sorry,” he said.  He’d never understand the rules of this world — what he could see, versus what might actually be there if he touched it.

The bones readjusted, almost in a dance.  Skeletal hands went to exposed hips, and the hips moved.  Teeth clacked together, then stopped.  The skull tilted to the side again, waiting.

Again, Reuben wasn’t sure of the skeleton’s gender, its age, what its appearance would have been been in former days.  He simply wasn’t getting enough visual signals to judge.

But the other signal was finally coming through, loud and clear.  Those movements were an invitation of sorts.  The skeleton was flirting with him.

Reuben didn’t know what he was getting into.  He leaned closer to the stranger, wishing he could squint and bring facial features into focus, wishing he was brave enough to touch the other person, learn more information before committing to further intimacy.

He took a deep breath, hoping to distinguish perfume or aftershave, and noticed only the burnt ash smell that now permeated their city.

Reuben moved even closer, waiting to feel the brush of a beard or a soft cheek against his hopeful lips.

November 7

Pledge Week

 

Lyndon Johnson signed the Public Broadcasting Act on November 7, 1967.  Ever since, it seems like the government has threatened to revoke the funding.

Although you never cared to spend sunny days on a puppet-populated street, or have dipthongs shouted at you by titular members of a power company, you always loved the evening programs on PBS television stations — adaptations of classic novels, or exported comedies and mysteries.  The fare on the publicly supported channels was always a little different, often a little smarter, than the offerings on mainstream US channels.

To help supplement their funding, PBS stations added an annual “Pledge Week” drive, which was essentially a week-long fundraising telethon.

“Send us your pledge,” the hosts used to say, “to ensure continued quality programming.”

Pledge Week interrupted regular programming with special broadcasts — a reunion concert for a folk trio, an inspirational speech from a self-proclaimed fitness guru, a nine-part historical documentary — intended to encourage contributions.  For a fifty dollar pledge, they’d send a VHS tape, later a DVD, of the program you just watched…which seemed kind of redundant.

The incentive seemed even more redundant when, in response to dwindling government funding, Pledge Week increased from annual to semi-annual…then quarterly.  The same programs came around again and again, the folk trio singing about a plane or a dragon, the fitness guru touting positive thinking, and the documentary series that cycled through the same film clips and talking heads you saw a few months earlier.  At intermission when the hosts mentioned “free gifts” at specific pledge levels, you couldn’t imagine anybody would need these programs on disc.

It was so disappointing to tune in expecting the latest Masterpiece, and to encounter more Beg-a-thon blather.   During those weeks, you used to joke with your sister-in-law that “Channel 22 is on strike again.”   You’d complain about the ever-frequent disruptions to your TV schedule as if it was the end of the world.

Then the apocalypse actually hit.  Locally, Channel 22 was the only station anybody could tune in.

With the downfall of national government, they needed viewer support more than ever.

The guru’s advice about positive thinking rang hollow.  The 9-part documentary was a fantasy about a long-gone era.  But those were the only shows on offer. “Send us your pledge,” the hosts said, “and we’ll resume regular programming.”

Now, it’s always Pledge Week.

November 6

Killer Bees…

 

…will be here soon.  I’ve built

a shelter, have protective clothing.

I’m not allergic, but I’ve heard

one sting’s enough

to bring a swarm upon you,

a pulsing beige carpet, stinging.

 

The angry territorial mind, engineered

to produce better honey for toast and tea

(adding better sweetness, you’d agree,

is worth the risk of calm)

— although, mesh-masked,

I cannot eat, and gloves

that fatten my fingers

cannot grip a knife and fork.

 

My shielding frightens children,

cuts me off from conversation.

But friendships are a luxury

when my refuge has, so sorry,

just space enough

for one.

November 5

Guy Fawkes Night

 

“Penny for the guy.”

You prepare to avert your eyes from the approaching group of school kids, and the holiday manikin-slash-effigy they’ve prepared for their fundraising effort.  They’re simply quoting a traditional chant — you know they expect more than a single penny.

With a casual movement, you put your hands in your pockets as you get closer.  By accident, your ring clinks against your house keys, making it sound like you’re carrying a pile of loose change.

“Penny for the guy.”  This time a different voice offers the chant.  He’s one of the older kids — or at least practiced enough to embed a veiled threat into his words.

Let them all chant.  You give money to worthier causes than children’s candy.

Their eyes glower at you.  You try not to glance in their direction, but the collective gaze is unsettling.  You almost get the impression that the Guy is glaring at you, too.

He’s only a suit of clothes stuffed with straw or wadded newsprint, gloves tied to the sleeves, socks dangling from trouser legs, and some kind of hat-topped mask emerging from the collar.  The kids carry this life-sized dummy to represent Guy Fawkes, the thwarted conspirator who hoped to blow up Parliament in 1605.  Tonight they’ll throw the dummy on the bonfire, straw and newspaper igniting quickly, and they’ll cheer as it burns — especially if flames give the Guy a moment of artificial life, stuffed limbs flailing in simulated agony.

The sidewalk pushes you closer to the group than you’d like.  The children have started chanting in unison, as if casting a spell.  The Guy is raised above their heads, and different amateur puppeteers move the arms and legs.

Guy waves a greeting, his legs making bicycle kicks in the air.

You recognize him.

Only a glance, out the corner of your eye, but you’ve seen him before.  The striped pattern of the jacket, the slightly frayed cuffs of his matching trousers.

He’s you.

Your clothes, to be exact.  The effect startles you only for a moment, since you have an easy explanation:  last week, you’d dropped off a sack of old clothes at a local church, as a charitable donation.  These young scavengers appropriated a few items for their mischievous purpose.

“I know your tricks,” you say, and turn to confront them with an adult’s scorn — but you’re hit with another shock.

Not just the clothes, but the mask, too.  It’s your face.

Guy has your face.

His body wriggles in familiar, discarded clothing, and Guy’s head bobs unsteady from the suit collar.  The head looks like a plastic bag stuffed with garbage, taped in an oval shape, then painted to add facial features.  The mouth hangs open dumbly beneath a jutting putty nose.   The eyes are out of alignment, but bulge realistically — with wire lashes and stiff bristled eyebrows arched above.  The eyebrows, and the matted locks spilling out beneath the hat, appear to be actual hair.

Animal hair, or human?  You wonder if the hair is your own.

Penny for the Guy.  Penny for the Guy.

The puppeteer on one side waves the right sleeve.  On the fingers of the attached glove, you notice small white crescents taped to the tips.  Fingernail clippings.

Penny.  for.  the.  Guy.

You break eye contact and hustle past the schoolkids and their gruesome craft project.  They keep chanting, and you almost break into a run as you struggle to get out of earshot.

At the bottom of the hill, you round the corner and head up a side street.  You can still hear them.

But it’s not them.  Another group of kids offers a similar chant.  They have their own dummy, fashioned from a different set of your donated clothes.

From a distance, this Guy’s head looks even more like your own.  The kids lift and push and wave, and you see yourself dancing.

Instead of walking toward this group, you change route and duck down an alley.  A large overflowing dumpster looms on the left, and a bag of clothes has spilled out the top.  Two children are fighting over it, pulling the bag in different directions and hoping to tear it open.  Straw or newspaper might fall out, or clothing you’d recognize, or maybe chunks of spoiled meat spilling wet and red onto the ground.

You find another side street, run down it, afraid what new obstacle you might encounter.  You’re dreaming, or something terrible has happened to the world and its children, and your scalp and eyebrows itch as if your hair has been pulled out, the tips of your fingers are sore, and you keep running even as the ground falls out from under you.  You make bicycle kicks in the air, and it feels like it getting warmer and warmer, and you hear young voices cheering.

November 4

Will Rogers (b. 1879)

 

Rabies would produce a similar effect.  Even a normally gentle dog, as the infection attacked the brain, might descend into the “furious phase.”  Growling and agitated, unwilling to be touched.  Provoked by the slightest movement.

Lashing out.  Biting.  Scratching.

The human equivalent of such behavior is terrible.  It’s so personal — words chosen to wound, directed at strangers (“Only an idiot would drive/walk/breathe like that,” or, “You’re too stupid to live”), at loved ones (“Every minute with you is torture,” or, “I can’t bear to look at you anymore”), at children (“I wish you’d never been…”).

Biting words.  Then actual bites, too.   Scratching like animals, but with added assistance from sharp weapons.

The brain-altering infection spread quickly.  Suddenly, people hated each other.

And they acted on it.

Medical professionals were too busy attacking each other to discover a cure.

As violence raged in the streets, peacekeepers tried to spread calm.  They chanted “Love thy Neighbor,” repeated Will Rogers’ famous saying, “I never met a man I didn’t like,” or insisted “We’re all in this together.”  Then their furious phase kicked in, and these gentle souls tore each other apart.

Because you possessed a rare, natural immunity to the infection, you’re one of the few survivors.  Unfortunately, you witnessed first-hand the many terrible things that people did to each other.

You hate them for it.

November 3

National Sandwich Day

 

“And here, under glass, is a sandwich.”

The tour guide pressed a button which allowed the item to spin on its covered pedestal.  The group gathered closer, everyone angling for the best view.

“This was a popular meal configuration, in the days when we had farming and supermarkets and a global economy.  The food item could be lifted by one or both hands, easily delivered to the mouth.  The top and bottom layers — a spongy yet edible substance made from flour — served to contain, for the most part, the collection of protein and vegetation and sauces within.”

Several listeners groaned, perhaps to cover the rumbles from their stomachs.

“Our particular specimen has a marbled bread, made from a swirled combination of light and dark rye-flour dough.  Inside, the folded over meat protein is stamped-flat sections of processed chicken, speckled and spiced circles of cured meat called salami, and some gray beef slices veined with fat.  Cheese, which is essentially solid dairy mucus, appears in several flat squares — an orange variation designated with the American nationality, and a white hole-punched Swiss variation.”

A few listeners licked their lips.

“There’s a leafy crunch added by a layer of lettuce, a few slices of red and messy tomato, and thin concentric circles of raw onion.  The sauces here are a yellow-orange spread called mustard, and other translucent oils that add shine to the meat and cheese.”

One member of the group raised a hand.

“Let me anticipate,” the guide said. “You’re wondering about the bite mark that’s removed one corner of our sandwich.  Yes, that bite is the reason we now keep the sandwich under glass.  Most people assume the covering is to preserve freshness — that we’ve frozen the foodstuff to maintain its original appearance and flavor.

“But it’s not a real sandwich.  This is an artful simulation fashioned from inedible rubber and plastic.

“The glass covering was added to protect the general public from temptation.  Because, as we learned, everyone’s just too hungry these days.  Some poor soul couldn’t resist taking a bite.”

 

November 2

2nd Day of the Dead

 

Chances are pretty good that you’ll know some of them.

Their appearance will be a bit of a shock.

It’s not like a friend you haven’t seen in a long time.  Not like they’ve gained or lost a bit of weight.  Hair’s gone gray, wrinkles formed under their eyes or at the corners of their mouth.

No, these changes will be a lot more dramatic, especially for the folks who’ve been underground longer.

Or ones who had a harder coffin shell to splinter with their bare hands.  Or a longer way to dig to the surface.

They’re gonna look pretty scratched up.

Even if you’ve watch a lot of those autopsy scenes on TV police dramas, you’re not ready.  Hell, I’ve actually assisted on a few autopsies, and I’m pretty nervous.

Prepare yourself.

These are the adults tonight, and some of them might be strong.  Don’t be fooled by holes in their faces or in their torso.  If one arm’s hanging by a thin tendon, that doesn’t mean the other one couldn’t tear into you.

Don’t be fooled by a loved one’s face in the shambling crowd.  Your parents or grandparents, siblings or grown-up kids.  Your friends or neighbors.  It’s not them anymore.

If you can’t handle putting them down, call one of us.  We’ll take care of it.

Okay, that’s enough pep talk.  It’s getting dark.  They’ll be here soon.

 

 

 

November 1

Day of the Dead

 

These are the children’s graves.

We did the right thing, treating them the same as adults.  We held funerals, lowered coffins into the ground or placed them in mausoleums, put up tombstones or other markers.

Did all this, even though there wasn’t much time.  And there were so many.

Tonight is the night we would normally honor the youngest among our dead.  Recent events have made that expectation more difficult.

The bodies interred here aren’t developed enough.  Some were so young, they barely had fingernails.  How could you expect them to scratch through fabric and wood and six-feet of earth?

Even the older children hadn’t yet developed muscles for such activity.  Reflex and repetition will not be enough:  scratching and tapping and kicking, every desperate movement all too weak and ineffective.

Imagine a five year old trying to pull back the stone door of a mausoleum.  Impossible.

The burden tonight will be on us.  None of them will be able to escape their tombs or coffins.

But they’ll be able to cry.  We’ll hear their cries all night.

October 31

Halloween

 

We might have predicted the world would end on Halloween.

A fun holiday for children and for young-at-heart adults.  Candy, costumes, and make-believe frights.

Across our neighborhoods, front yards turned into graveyards or into haunted forests.  Skeletons rattled from the rooftops, and broom-riding witches crash landed into tree trunks.  Silhouettes of black cats arched their backs in window frames, and rubber insects flashed red eyes from polyester spider-webs.

All in fun.  But these cartoon entertainments were derived from ancient superstitions. After midnight, some believed the veil between natural and supernatural grew thin.  Ghosts and other legendary creatures threaten to become tangible during this time — a gossamer body drifting through mist, clawed hands reaching across the rift, a tentacle unfurling into our vulnerable world.

Perhaps we’d have been ready to battle such things — armed with rules those monsters must obey when faced with religious symbols, recited prayers, or precious metals.

We weren’t ready for what actually happened.  Skeletons shrugged off comical overcoats and pressed plastic fingers into human eye sockets.  Face-flattened witches found new flight, and gouged a broken broomstick into a victim’s still-beating heart.  Spiders hopped off artificial webs and oozed thick poison into unsuspecting mouths.

No vampires or zombies or other risen dead attacked this Halloween.  Our own decorations turned against us.

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