Norman Prentiss

Excerpts from The Apocalypse-a-Day Desk Calendar

Lava Scape

December 6

The Manifestation (Part 5)

 

“He’s nearing the last phase of the ritual.” Carlson leaned forward, one hand flat against the glass front, the other cupping the earpiece of his receiver to help him catch every word. His voice began to lose its scholarly detachment. “If something’s going to happen, it will be soon.”

“Don’t hold your breath,” Hilliard said.

Watkins actually was holding his breath. Despite his key role throughout months of preparation for this moment, he never once believed they’d succeed. But after noting the somber mood of the thirteen, how they performed the words and motions with utmost seriousness, his skepticism started to waver. If now was the time…

“Look.”

It was Deitrich — the loudest whisper the guy could produce.

Watkins judged the angle of Deitrich’s outstretched arm; it indicated the direct center of the pentagram. He squinted, but didn’t see anything.

Their chants were a ridiculous and unpronounceable jumble of misplaced vowels and hard consonants, but the thirteen voices managed to recite the phrases in unison. One voice sounded louder than the rest in their headsets and over the speakers, gaining strength in a kind of inspired frenzy. Still, Watkins saw nothing.

Perhaps that was the point.

At the center of the pentagram. The hardwood floors of the basketball court had been painted black for the ritual, a flat layered coating of Sherwin‑Williams #32 that reflected almost no light. Yet there had been some slight glow from the candles, from the perimeter lights near the ceiling of the auditorium. Now one spot was, yes, definitely darker. Like ink dropped into water, it clouded outward from the center and absorbed any trace of light. Patches of the chalk outline seemed to disappear, laced by black thread.

This was like the darkness his mother had told him about. The awful day when the elementary school went dark, when the children panicked and screamed. Watkins could almost hear them now.

And then that one voice above the thirteen. The Creep suddenly, in his mania, translated the chant into English: “Demon, from the depths of Hell, we make you manifest. In your name. In the unholy name of — ”

**crackle**

Twelve voices continued the chant.

“What did he say?” Carlton asked.

Watkins glanced away from the black cloud, even as it grew, even as it took shape. He saw the Creep tuck the forbidden book under one arm and reach under his hood with both hands. The microphone piece of his headset snapped off and fell to the ground.

Then, Commander Myers’ voice from the back of the booth: “Get that broken son-of-a-bitch out of there!”

 

#

 

[…continued in December 7 entry…]

December 5

The Manifestation (Part 4)

 

“We can make it manifest itself.”

Deitrich had spoken during a lull in the discussion. It would have been difficult to hear his quiet voice otherwise.

“What?” Myers’ booming question simultaneously branded Deitrich an idiot and demanded an explanation.

“Well, aren’t there people who, I don’t know, specialize in this sort of thing?” Deitrich tried to shrug off the full attention of the group. He looked down at his index finger, traced lines in the wooden grain of the tabletop. Watkins was poised to write notes on Deitrich’s suggestion — as soon as he figured out what the hell the guy was talking about.

“We’ve been circling around different theories,” Deitrich continued. “And keep coming back to the same idea. Something supernatural.”

He was right. Of all the possibilities on the dry‑erase board, the ridiculous one, the one that seemed like a humorous afterthought, was beginning to seem the most plausible.

Under the heading in block capital letters — BROKEN DISEASE — Myers had written a list:

 

x ‑ Bad Luck

Myers had ticked a small “x” next to this line, ruling out the theory. Symptoms tended to cluster more predictably than could be explained by mere happenstance or coincidence. Bad luck was random, didn’t circle around people like weather patterns. Once contracted, this disease hung over each sufferer like the proverbial dark cloud.

x ‑ Psycho‑Somatic Illness

When objects you touch frequently fall apart, when the world itself seems broken, that has a pretty dramatic effect on your psyche. Small wonder, then, that initial opinions favored the idea of psychosis. People with the Broken Disease frequently appeared to be crazy — ranting at an uncooperative vending machine, going to pieces over a jammed photocopier. Medical opinion followed the track of previous intangible diseases such as chronic fatigue or Gulf War syndromes: they initially blamed the victims but, after a preponderance of convincing anecdotal evidence, grudgingly admitted there might be something there after all.

x ‑ Mass Hysteria

This corollary to the psycho‑somatic explanation focused on social groups rather than the individual. The disease was statistically more prevalent among the target demographic of tabloid newspapers — believers in Elvis, alien, or bigfoot sightings, or Christ’s image burned into a tortilla. But the disease didn’t follow the typical pattern of mass hysteria, didn’t limit itself to particular, gullible populations. As more and more isolated cases arose among the highly educated, this theory fell from favor.

x ‑ Medical Condition

They called it a “disease,” but there was no measurable cause for the symptoms, no isolated virus, no identifiable anomaly in a victim’s muscular or nervous system. Further, the symptoms didn’t exhibit in a predictable manner. Things didn’t break all the time — just often enough to be statistically impossible, often enough to drive many victims towards bouts of uncontrolled anger.

x ‑ Germ Warfare

The inability to locate a medical condition would eliminate this possibility as well. And clearly, the Broken Disease wasn’t interested in politics or national borders. High‑ranking government officials in all nations were susceptible, as were people in positions of trust such as doctors or airplane pilots.  Serious disasters continued to occur throughout the globe — and the next catastrophe, the worst and final one, seemed imminent.

x ‑ God is Angry

Televangelists solicited donations by aligning the disease with God’s wrath, but it seemed too small-minded to fit with the general public’s image of Him. The Broken Disease seemed too random, lacking any trace of so-called “intelligent design.”  If God planned to destroy the world, couldn’t he do a more efficient job of it?

 

Which left only the last item without an “x” next to it:

 

‑ Demonic Curse

Well, this was how the disease felt to its victims. So many testimonials brought up the idea of a “curse.” Broken people felt “damned from the start,” whatever they attempted. They weren’t broken physically, but in spirit — as if their soul had been devastated, devoured. Evil, with a capital “E,” had to be at work here.

 

“It’s what we’re all thinking, isn’t it?” Despite his timid voice, Deitrich had gained full control of the discussion. “The disease is supernatural, right?”

Nobody contradicted him.

“We go after cancer or alzheimer’s with science. But if this disease was created by a demon, medicine isn’t the answer. We’ve got to summon it up, make the disease itself appear.”

“Jesus,” somebody said. “I wouldn’t know where to begin.”

Meyers looked at Watkins, nodded slightly. “We’ll check into it.”

 

#

 

[…continued in December 6 entry…]

December 4

The Manifestation (Part 3)

 

All five of the observers recognized the man Hilliard jokingly referred to as Ozzy. His was the name each consulted source had mentioned in a dark, respectful whisper — a clear choice to lead the ritual. Watkins thought of him only as “The Creep.” He kept a printout reference sheet for all thirteen subjects, but he hadn’t bothered to connect their names to their faces. When this was finished, Watkins wanted nothing to do with them. The Creep could someday write a chapter detailing how he once helped the government with a secret ceremony. Nobody would believe him: the subjects had all been blindfolded, didn’t know where they were. They couldn’t prove this any more than they could prove a dream.

Watkins had organized the gathering. Although not a highly ranked officer, he gained respect for his ability to coordinate a sanctioned event quickly and discretely. He had compiled a list of names from online research, agent consultations, and study of classified documents. He interviewed each subject, then brought them here separately via private jet or helicopter.

Carlson, the scholar, helped secure some of the documents, including the leather‑bound book that eleven of the thirteen had argued couldn’t actually exist. He’d led the subjects in an intense workshop to reach consensus on the rituals, then collated the opinions into a ceremony. Demonic summoning by committee. Watkins got the impression that Carlson was, like himself, a skeptic. He approached the varied practices with a purely academic interest.

Hilliard, overweight with the arrogance of technological expertise, acted as if he ran the show from his seat at the control panel. They tolerated his jokes because he had knowledge they needed.

Commander Myers supervised in the background. Wiry thin with horn‑rimmed glasses and gray hair, he seemed the parody of a frail businessman. Until you heard him speak, his voice firm and assertive, reinforced by the determined stare of a true leader.

And Deitrich. Deitrich was here because he’s the one who had the brilliant idea:

 

#

 

[…continued in December 5 entry…]

 

December 3

The Manifestation (Part 2)

 

Watkins’ mother’s had been a teacher in this building, back during its brief tenure as an elementary school. She sometimes told the story of the day the power went out.

The idea of the school, in the seventies, was to create a controlled environment. Lots of concrete; large activity spaces; sleek, compartmentalized classrooms with no windows (to minimize distractions from the outdoors).

The school was as strong as a bomb shelter. When the storm hit, the kids were in the safest possible place.

Except the emergency lights malfunctioned.  Indoors, concrete, no windows: the classrooms were completely, utterly dark.

The kids were terrified. His mother would tell how she tried to calm her third‑grade students, asked them to hold each other’s hands and form a circle. From outside they heard muffled blasts of thunder from the storm that had surged their power lines. A siren sounded in the distance.

One child started screaming. He ran, not knowing where he ran. They heard his head knock against a concrete post.

Then other children screamed and ran. Small fists punched at cinder blocks that wouldn’t break away, wouldn’t open to admit the comfort of light.

After that well-publicized disaster, the building was no longer suitable as a school. His mother transferred to another district, another grade. The school board shifted selected high school students to the concrete building, particularly kids from “problem populations.” Many of the rooms were reinforced with locks and steel bars, which emphasized the prison‑like elements already nascent in the building’s original design.

Eventually the demographics of the district shifted. Couples with teenage kids left the area; older couples moved in, tempted by nearby discount stores; one neighborhood became popular with gay couples who sought a safe, quiet alternative to city life. There were fewer kids to feed into the school’s population.

Almost as if it had been planned that way, the school became obsolete.

But there it was, in the middle of everything. On a busy street, directly across from a strip mall with a giant pet store, two coffee chains, and a warehouse discount outlet.

On most weekends, the school’s parking lot became an impromptu showcase for used cars. It wasn’t clear how this practice began, but it quickly became a familiar diversion; halted at the traffic light, bored drivers would glance at the latest selections, prices hand‑lettered on slats of cardboard tucked behind front windshields.

The third weekend of every month, weather permitting, the grounds of the former school became the site of a gigantic, multi‑family rummage sale. Some antique dealers and oddity peddlers became regular vendors, which helped the event flourish. The stores across the street would post a “No Flea Market Parking” sign that weekend; otherwise, there’d be no spaces for their own customers.

In a morbid in‑joke, some locals still referred to the site as “the dead elementary school.” In general though, it was an unused building whose parking lot and grounds became useful on weekends. People saw it all the time — looking for cars, random weekend junk, or just enjoying the spectacle from a distance.

Always worth a glance as you drove by.

But, windowless and remote, right under peoples’ noses, the building itself wasn’t worth a second thought.

 

#

 

[…continued in December 4 entry…]

 

December 2

The Manifestation (Part 1)

 

“Do they have to wear the robes?”

“We’re doing everything by the book.”

Literally. The title was branded into the cover in a language Watkins couldn’t translate. The book was leather‑bound, the color and texture of aged human skin. Stains in the crevices might have been dried blood.

He didn’t want to know.

They looked down as a robed man held the book before him like an offering.  The man walked to the circled edge of a diagram chalked into in the floor of the auditorium below, white candles burning at each of the five points. Two figures stepped to his side, grasped the hood of their leader’s robe and gently raised it to cover his mullet of flat, brown hair.

“Why didn’t we airlift Ozzy in here while we were at it?”

“Quiet, Hilliard.”

“Ah, they can’t hear us.”

True enough.  They sat in an observation room forty feet above an indoor gymnasium — formerly the play‑by‑play booth for school sporting events. The glass surrounding the front of the booth was soundproof. Hilliard, their technology expert, manned the control panel: the scoreboard switches and announcer microphones had been supplemented with modern radio transmitters and state‑of‑the‑art recording equipment. The thirteen hooded figures below wore wireless headsets, and Hilliard controlled what instructions they heard from the observation room.

In the booth, they were safely out of earshot.

And, Watkins hoped, far enough away from any trouble that might get summoned up.

 

#

 

[…continued in December 3 entry…]

December 1

The Last ____________ on Earth (Part 8)

 

To make a good first impression, Vicky wore a freshly ironed white blazer with matching slacks.  From past experience she’d leared to err on the side of formality, knowing she could relax her dress code later once she got a better idea about the new office.

The current situation wasn’t encouraging.  She actually had to check her notes to make sure she was in the right place.  Vicky had written down “Martens” as the Supervisor Contact.  The address listed “1226” as the building number.

The last digit was hanging upside down above the building’s entrance.  But she was on the even side of the street, with 1228 next door, so this had to be it.

Even though half the entryway had collapsed.  Even though the interior lobby was completely dark.

Well, not completely.  A faint light bobbed in the distant interior, like a firefly in a cave.  It buzzed closer.

Soon, a woman’s shape became visible behind the bobbing light.  She was wearing a yellow hardhat and construction-worker overalls.

“Ms. Martens?”  Vicky extended a hand to greet her Supervisor Contact.

Martens lowered the flashlight so it wouldn’t shine in her face, then accepted the handshake.  “I thought I’d meet you at the door.  It’s a bit tricky getting through.”

By way of illustration, Martens swept her flashlight around the area.  Several large holes appeared in the floor.  The rail from a collapsed spiral staircase curled along the ground like a giant metal snake.

“Lead the way,” Vicky said.  As she followed close, she wished she hadn’t worn dress heels.  In the dim light, she noticed smudges of ash on the right sleeve of her blazer.  Before she reached the other side of the lobby, her white outfit would be covered in soot.

“What did you do before this?” her supervisor asked as they walked.

“Oh, they just had me sit and answer the phone.  It never rang.”

“Before that?”

“The library, preparing overdue notices.  Nobody brought their books back, though.”

They reached the edge of the lobby, and Martens pulled open a door beneath an unlit “Exit” sign.  “No elevator, obviously.   But it’s only one flight down.”

Vicky leaned close to the wall as she navigated the stairs — irritated that she added fresh smudges to her blazer.

With many more smudges to come, Vicky realized once she reached the downstairs office and understood the kind of work she’d be expected to do.

Courtesy of a noisy power generator, the lighting was bright in the basement work area.  It almost seemed like a long-lost summer day, except the room was too cold.

“The machine’s pretty simple to use.”  Her supervisor flipped a switch, and a new growl sounded to compete with the generator.  “You’ll want to pin your hair back.”

As Vicky used both hands to arrange her long hair into a simple braid, she examined the machine’s levers and buttons.  “What’s it for?”

Ms. Martens stood silent for a moment before responding.  “My workers never asked me that before.  They just did as they were told.”

“But…”  Vicky looked at the well-lit factory, the series of silent, unmanned machines stretching out beyond the one she was now expected to operate.  “What’s the point?”

Her supervisor leaned back, took a slow breath, then exhaled loudly.  “I guess you want your life to have meaning,” she said in the tone typically reserved for difficult employees.  “I guess you want your actions to have a profound effect on the local community.  On the U.S. economy.  Maybe on the future of our planet.”

“No,” Vicky said.  “I was just wondering.”

“Well, cut these parts the right way, and they’ll fit into something else.  That enough for you?”

Vicky nodded.  She’d wanted so badly to make a good first impression, but every assignment was like this now.  Every Supervisor Contact seemed impossible to please.  They acted like it was her fault that so many people hadn’t shown up for work after the apocalypse.

It wasn’t easy being The Last Temporary Employee on Earth.

 

November 30

Stay Home Because You’re Well Day

 

Kingsley used to joke about faking a sick day, to take a “mental health” break from annoying co-workers.  As his supervisor, Alisha Martens usually granted the request.  She appreciated the honesty.  It was better to be warned in advance about the absence, so she could prepare for it — and it spared her another early-morning, last-minute phone call filled with sniffles or fake coughs or baby talk (“I just fwew up.  Urp.”).

Besides:  she supervised the other employees, too.  She knew they were annoying.

Alisha was especially angry with her staff today.  None of them showed up on time this morning.  An hour into the a.m. shift, and still no signs of anybody.

She checked her voice mail, both for her personal and work phones.  Both empty.  She hated getting sick-day messages, but now felt offended that nobody had bothered to call.

Besides… it was getting so late in the day, she she wouldn’t have time to bring in temporary workers from the agency.  Barring some miracle — like the whole crew pouring through the door at once, all sharing the same story about a huge traffic backup, power outage, or childcare emergency — she was going to have to close shop for today.

If she’d known this was coming, she could have stayed home herself.  Slept late.  Watched game shows, baked cookies, finished a few chores around the house.

Before making any final decisions, Alicia typed in “Holiday November 30” on her web browser.  Several obscure observances flashed on the screen, but the one that stood out was, “Stay Home Because You’re Well Day.”  Reading the description, she learned it was the equivalent of Kingsley’s mental health day, writ large.  An unofficial free holiday, and apparently her whole staff had decided to take advantage of it.

Sneaky trick they all pulled, not telling her.  The one who angered her the most, though, was Kingsley.  He’d always been honest, but now he was playing the same silly game as the rest of them.

So Alicia decided to call him at home.

She hoped his ring tone was loud.  She hoped it woke him from a sound sleep.

While she waited, Alicia glanced at the empty workstations spread out on the main floor.  They were really going to have trouble meeting their goals this month.

On her desktop, the computer monitor flashed away from the search she’d typed in earlier.  A random advertisement filled a box in the right column of her screen, all red letters and exclamation points.  She’d trained herself to ignore such intrusions.

Click.

At first she thought she’d been disconnected, but then she heard a raspy breathing on the line.  No other clues, no recognizable words or syllables..but for some reason, she didn’t doubt that it was Kingsley.

“Sorry to interrupt,” Alicia said, “but we’re behind schedule.  We can’t all ‘stay at home because we’re well’ today.”

Even as she said it, with all the authoritative sarcasm she could muster, Alicia knew she’d made a mistake.  Kingsley’s wordless breaths still conveyed a message.  He wasn’t well.  Not at all.

A low gurgle rose through the phone line, then a cough — not a fake cough but a real one, low and deep and phlegmy.

“Tell me what’s the matter,” she said.  “Are you still there?”

She was afraid he’d answer No, in a voice totally unlike his own.  No, I’m not here.

An awful retching followed.  She imagined Kingsley trying too hard to speak, clearing a pathway in his throat but actually shredding internal tissues in the effort.  It almost sounded like Kingsley was turning himself inside out.

Then he finally formed two words…delivered in the rhythm of his former voice, but with an awful metamorphosis brought about by illness and pained awareness:  “We’re dying.”

In all the sick-calls she’d gotten over the years, with all the bad acting and exagerrations, she’d never had anybody say that before.  I feel terrible, yes.  But nobody every said, dying.

The plural bothered her a bit, too.  *We’re* dying.

The connection ended abruptly, and Kingsley’s name and number disappeared from the screen of her smartphone.  The display shifted to flashing red letters and exclamation points.

 

November 29

1963 – The Warren Commission established

 

Outside the Frame

 

How many times can you watch the same man’s head

explode?  Try adjusting that frame (number three thirteen)

against the audio, counting backwards to pinpoint

when the previous bullet begins to drill

into the president’s back then out his throat,

tumbles sideways through Connally’s shoulder, wrist,

then thigh — an improbable trajectory —

to rest there until it rolls out hours later

pristine on a hospital stretcher.

 

Consider

how the head snaps back; check for blurring

where (you think) the cameraman was startled.

Fire a round of test shots at cantaloupes

wrapped in duct tape. Then satisfy yourself

that it really could have happened as they say.

 

The camera doesn’t lie, but it limits.  For years

you heard rumors that along one side of film,

next to the sprockets, the fog of peripheral vision

might be lifted.  Now computer-enhanced,

these unprojected slivers tell you…    nothing.

Even if you could put yourself in the scene,

you’d only peer through thick wire-framed glasses

like a rifle-scope or a camera’s viewfinder

that catches subjects with occasional skill, more often

a  twitch, or accidental turn of the head.

Work with what you’re given. Adjust the focus,

slow things down or enlarge part of the image,

study the picture’s edge — but you cannot

change the frame.

 

And what you need to know

will be always, always, outside the frame.

November 28

National Day of Giving

 

After the day designated for Thanksgiving, after days you might formerly have devoted to shopping, it would be nice to dedicate a day towards helping those who were less fortunate.

You remember how you used to post on MyFace about which charity you selected for each year’s #GivingDay donation.  Sometimes you worked with national organizations  — Salvation This, or March of That.  A medical cause was always worthy — Find a Cure for Whatsis.

Some years you kept your giving closer to home, providing funds for a local orphanage or homeless shelter.  One year, you contributed to a Community Center that offered wholesome afterschool activities for the city’s at-risk youth.

The Community Center was destroyed last month.  You have no way to contact any national charity organizations, if they still exist.

Honestly, if they do exist, they should be giving you help rather than vice versa.

Because other local assistance programs have gone the way of the Community Center.  You could definitely benefit from a homeless shelter, since you can’t remember the last time you slept in a bed.  Maybe you’d be a candidate for an orphanage, too — considering you’ve essentially been orphaned from the rest of humanity.

As for medical causes, you’re pretty sure you have Whatsis, and could really use a cure right about now.

 

November 27

Cyber Monday Apocalypse

 

Dear [Valued Customer]:

 

This email is to inform you of this year’s Cyber Monday promotions.  Our policies have changed in the wake of the Apocalypse, so please be sure to read each item carefully before clicking on any of the links.

 

– Store Close-Outs!

No, we’re not talking about our store closing — we’re talking about the small stores in your area.  Click below to order in bulk all the items you usually purchase at a local grocery, drug store, clothing shop, or bookstore.

After a reasonable interim, we’ll place a duplicate order for you and charge your credit card on file until we’ve drained the account.

 

– Postal Carrier Back-Breaking Special!

Not everybody was lucky enough to be in the shadow of a toppled building.  Never fear:  we will ship large chunks of rubble to your doorstep, so you can conveniently spread brick and cement carnage across your front lawn, simulating the devastation that struck our larger cities.

We have a nearly inexhaustible supply of affordable ruins to ship, but be aware that postage costs will run high for these heavy items…and, depending on the weight you choose, you might actually injure your Mail Carrier!

 

– Apocalypse Pranks!

While everyone else is scrambling to stay alive, we’ll help you prove you haven’t lost your sense of humor.  Click any of the links below to order:

* Pulse Wave Generator.  Imagine what happens when people lose their very, very limited access to electrical power.  With a push of the button, enjoy the crowd’s hilarious panic as lights and screens go dark.  [Note: not recommended near hospitals or police departments]

* Drone Art.  Another crowd pleaser:  we’ll arrange for a collection of programmed drones to fly over your city recreating an artistic image of your choosing.  Synchronized shapes include:  a dark, sun-covering cloud; a large missile pointed toward a nosey neighbor’s domicile; or, a viscious, red-eyed demon of retribution, to tease the religious zealots in your community.

* “Official”  Documents.  You’ll be the life of the apocalypse party with these official-looking documents.  Death Certificates.  Contamination Reports.  Evacuation Orders.  With the right names and addresses filled in, they’re sure to get a reaction.  And everyone will laugh with relief when you eventually tell them, Just kidding!

 

**Please note:  These Cyber Monday promotions may still be available for the remainder of the week/month/year, or as long as civilization survives.**

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