Norman Prentiss

Excerpts from The Apocalypse-a-Day Desk Calendar

Lava Scape

April 15

1912 — The Titanic Strikes an Iceberg

 

Impossible.

Literally, a PR nightmare of Titanic proportions.

Arnie Kimball was furious.  He’d been publicizing the event for months, building excitement — first with a mysterious billboard on I-95 (“Never Crash Again”); followed by teaser TV-spots, the car in shadow outline, the caption “Who Is Driving?” as the tagline; and concurrent social media posts with slogans like “Go Ahead, Sleep at the Wheel,” and the intentionally controversial “Drink and Drive and Stay Alive.”

Each of the media spots listed a date for the unveiling of his company’s new product.  A demonstration of the Sensor 3000, the world’s most sophisticated, self-driving car.

Just Arnie’s luck that apocalypse would strike from the skies on the crucial day of his carefully planned stunt.

Well, not exactly apocalypse, though a lot of people died on the west coast.  The freak hailstorm threw down heavy shards and spheres of ice, with massive property damage and significant human casualties.

This morning, the Director wanted to cancel the roll-out.  “Seems a little insensitive, don’t you think?”

“People need a distraction,” Arnie had argued back.  “Technology triumphs over the elements.  That’s a good message to reinforce during this time of sorrow.”

“Won’t have much of a crowd, if the storm’s headed this way.”

“We’ll film with stationary and drone cameras, as we planned.  Our larger audience will be online, anyway.”

“True,” his boss said.  “And fewer cars on the road, making the test drive safer.”

Arnie had sighed then.  He was confident in his product, and wished their company’s director felt the same.  “This will actually be the perfect showcase for the Sensor 3000’s most-advanced capabilities.  It can drive in the worst possible storm.”

Your boss hesitated.  If he approved a successful demonstration, he’d take all the credit.  If something went wrong, he’d have Arnie’s head.

But nothing could possibly go wrong.  The Sensor 3000 was an uncrashable car.

At 1:00 pm eastern time, the test began along I-95, the interstate mostly empty due to storm panic.  Arnie made one concession to the director’s safety concerns, removing the human driver from the car.  Their most experienced operator steered the vehicle remotely, assisted by onboard navigation equipment and video feeds from various drone cameras.

The idea was to begin on a straight stretch of highway, then turn off onto a city exit to demonstrate the car’s decision-making during complex downtown driving.

So far, the coverage was excellent.  Streaming live on countless sites, and the story picked up on all significant cable news channels.  The storm angle actually added a level of interest Arnie hadn’t anticipated.  And the storm was cutting close.

“Exit 52,” Arnie said to the operator.  A simple reprogramming, and the Sensor 3000 switched lanes and veered into the exit ramp.  It wasn’t like driving at all.  Anybody could do it.

Some of the drone footage got a bit fuzzy, but the car moved easily down deserted city streets, obeying speed limits, waiting at red lights, turning smooth corners.

No spectators waited at the side of the road.  New weather alerts, including flash storm warnings, scared them all away.

Some of the major stations cut away from your car’s progress, to follow the progress of the storm.  You relied on your own footage, but the drone images became distorted with static.

Not static, but sheets of rain and heavy ice.

Arnie checked the televised weather map, and advised the car’s remote driver to make an abrupt turn, away from the coming storm.  On the TV networks, an alert scroll warned about sudden drops of large hailstones, in concentrated areas.

The drone images were almost entirely obstructed.  The sound came though clear, however.

“What was that?” Arnie demanded.

The technician looked up from his control device.  “Didn’t you see?  That huge cluster of hailstones, all in one place.  I couldn’t help it.”

Impossible.  Literally, a PR nightmare of Titanic proportions.  Your miracle car was driving on land, and still managed to hit an iceberg on its maiden voyage.

April 14

1986 — World’s Heaviest Hailstones, Bangladesh

 

“Be right there!”

You were resigned to spending time alone this evening.  With severe storms in the forecast, it seemed reasonable that people would stay at home.  But there’s knocking at the door.  Familiar, but insistent — like the knock of a friend in trouble.

Probably Janet.  She was always locking herself out of her apartment or having car trouble.

You’re almost at the door when you hear someone walking on the roof, two floors above.  Not walking, exactly.  Stomping.

Then it’s more than one person.  A crowd marching, dancing.  Leaning over and bashing at shingles with hammers.

Sledgehammers.

With a crash, something breaks through and thumps on the floor of an upstairs bedroom.   The object sounds as heavy as a person.  Another person follows, then another.

Was your home being invaded?  Was the roof caving in?  You wonder the safest place to stand.  Doorways, they used to say, and the front door is closest.

More hammering, followed by a muffled rhythmic thump.  A chunk of ice the size of a bowling ball rolls down your carpeted stairwell.

You open the front door, and the situation outside is worse:  a storm of gigantic hailstones plummet from the sky, smashing into trees, cars, the roofs of houses.  You’ve heard of golf-ball-sized hail, the largest ones shaped like heavy grapefruits in that Bangladesh episode that killed almost a hundred people.  These are much worse.

And on your porch — a shattered wine bottle, which Janet was bringing by to thank you for all the favors you’ve done her over the years.  Lying next to the broken glass is Janet herself, also broken, her skull shattered by a pumpkin-sized sphere of spiked ice.

The sky grows thicker, and the hailstones shift into boulders.  It’s only a matter of time before one of them crushes you.

You live on the west coast.  The forecast predicted the storm would follow a wide, steady path across the entire country.

#

Authors Note:  If you’re enjoying this or other posts on the Apocalypse-a-Day blog, please consider reading my novel, Odd Adventures with your Other Father.  A #1 bestseller in LGBT/Horror, only $2.99 at Amazon! https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B01EG5NGPA

 

April 13

MKUltra, CIA mind-control experiments, initiated in 1953

 

You’ve never been on an acid trip, but this is probably what one would feel like.

Someone — or something — is chasing you.

The thing was in your bedroom when you woke.  It stood upright, like a man…but the body was overly muscled and covered with coarse, dark hair.  The eyes flashed red, its toothsome mouth elongated like an animal’s snout.

You panicked and ran from your own home while a frothing growl followed close.  You slammed the door, and you heard scratching at the wood, risked a glance behind.

And it’s your house, but the door is painted an unfamiliar red.  Spiral patterns form in the wood, like the swirl of a hypnotist’s disc, and you turn your head.  After-images of the spirals twist on the front lawn.  They look like traps that would grab your feet if you stepped in them, pulling you beneath the earth.

You jump to the driveway.  Too disoriented to take your own car, you race into the street, wave down a passing automobile.  The car slows to a crawl, the driver’s side window slowly scrolling down.  You expect the driver will call you crazy, ask why you’re blocking the road.  Instead, he sticks a long hairy snout out the window and growls menacingly.

With a scream, you run the other way, putting distance between yourself and the strange car.  One of your neighbors will help, you’re certain, but you can’t seem to recognize the other houses on the street.

Your own house looks different now, three stories high, ornate gargoyles along the elaborate roof.  That red door swings open and the muscular beast lumbers into the yard, pauses with its nose in the air to catch your scent.

Is it possible you spent the night in a strange home… a monster’s home?  And that creature is rightfully disturbed that you’ve invaded his territory?

Mind racing, you duck between two homes, cutting across the back lawns.  In one fenced-in yard, a family plays in their in-ground pool.  The children roll in the water, their damp, coarse fur shining in the morning sunlight.  The beast parents arrange large portions of hair-less food on a table covered with a white- and red-checked cloth.

This must be an experiment.  You’ve been drugged against your will, just like the unknowing subjects of mind-control experiments in the ’50s and ’60s.  Project MKUltra performed tests with LSD and other hallucinogenic drugs, hoping to find new ways to weaken a subject’s personality, frighten or disorient them, force them into uncharacteristic behaviors, or to reveal secret information.

If this is a drug, you want it to wear off soon.  The people are all monsters.  The buildings change as you watch, and the ground shifts beneath your unsteady feet.

You’ll confess to anything, say whatever they want to hear.  But nobody’s asking you any questions.

April 12

International Day of Human Space Flight

 

You’ve been looking forward to this getaway for many months.  The shuttle trip was limited to 30 civilian passengers, in addition to the scientists and administrators who were traveling on official business.

For you, it would be all scenery.  Bragging rights about how high you traveled, how many light years, what alien surface you had the chance to walk on.

The tickets were expensive, but that wasn’t the only cost.  Unlike a commercial airline flight, you had to attend extensive training sessions before the trip.   In a controlled chamber, you experienced a lengthy simulation of zero gravity.  You needed to pass several tests of physical endurance, including a thorough medical examination.  A psychological evaluation was also mandatory.

Now that you’ve passed all the hurdles, you’re finally able to take your assigned seat on the space shuttle.  You click the seatbelt over your waist, adjust the straps over your chest.

The safety instructions on a commercial airflight are typically 5 minutes long, and most passengers ignore the presentation.   For this journey, everyone pays careful attention to a 20 minute video that details every possible catastrophe — and what instruments and equipment might improve a passenger’s chance of survival.

Finally, the video ends.  You’re more nervous than you were before, but you also fell an adrenaline rush as the doors close before takeoff.

The pilot’s voice comes over the intercom, and you assume he’s going to announce the duration of the flight, citing weather conditions on Earth and beyond that might affect the smoothness of the ride.  Instead, the pilot says:  “Ladies and Gentlemen, we have an unfortunate situation with the number of seats on our flight.  Some government dignitaries will need passage, so we’re going to have to ask some of you to give up your seats.”

You hold tight to your armrest.  You’ve worked so hard to get here, and there’s no way you’re giving up now.

“We can offer you a full refund of your ticket price, plus significant credits toward future voyages.”

One of the crew members laughs reflexively at that last part, then covers his mouth.

Dignitaries.  You wonder if something…

“Volunteers.”  You detect a fresh note of panic in the pilot’s voice.  “Quickly, or we’ll have to choose for you.”

The passengers look at each other.  Several of the civilians pull out their phones and try to check for news reports.

“Put those away,” the laughing crew member says.  “Electronic devices interfere with our navigation equipment.”

The entry hatch opens at the front of the plane.  Instead of the announced dignitaries, a group of armed soldiers storm into the passenger area.

“Five volunteers needed.  Sorry:  six.”  The pilot sounds like he’s trembling, or trying to hold back tears.  “Right now, or we’ll have you forcibly removed.”

God, this is turning out to be like a commercial airline after all.

You’re not giving up your assigned seat, no matter what.

 

 

 

April 11

International Louie Louie Day

 

You’re driving…

Following the signal…

People used to say that, when every other living thing was gone, only cockroaches would survive a nuclear apocalypse.

For some reason, you’re still here — and you’ve definitely seen your share of cockroaches.  That’s about it for signs of life, though.  Except for the signal.

It’s the only human voice you could find on your truck’s radio dial.  There’s a relentless, chugging beat behind it, and the words are notoriously unintelligible.

So unintelligible, in fact, that an FBI obscenity investigation churned out pages and pages of documents that hoped to declare the lyrics obscene.  As they listened to the version by the Kingsman, pervy-eared Feds heard “Grab her way down low” in the repeated gotta-go line; their best misheard lyric was, “I felt my bone . . ah . . in her hair.”

1-2-3. 1-2. 1-2-3. 1-2.

The song is relentless, an earworm, ear-cockroach broadcast on perpetual repeat.  It’s the rock song that survived the apocalypse, and you dream of some impossible frat party, the same track spinning, a crowd dancing at the end of the world.

You steer towards where the signal is strongest, as cities burn in your rearview mirror.

 

#

Authors Note:  If you’re enjoying this or other posts on the Apocalypse-a-Day blog, please consider reading my novel, Odd Adventures with your Other Father.  A #1 bestseller in LGBT/Horror, only $2.99 at Amazon! https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B01EG5NGPA

 

 

 

April 10

National Siblings Day

 

“We’re family.”

Callie has the face she puts on when she wants something.  Your sister has some nerve bringing up family.  She always made herself scarce when life got tough, like when Mom fell sick and the house had to be emptied and sold.  Yet Callie showed up afterwards, all smiles, asking how the silverware and hummel figurines would get divided up.  Half each seems fair, don’t you think? If you want to eBay them yourself, that’s fine — just send me my share.

When you had your operation, Callie never came to visit.  Not even a Get Well card.  She didn’t offer space in her home while you recovered, though you’d let her stay with you when she and Liam broke up.

That difficult stretch after you lost your job, Callie must have known you’d need some of the money you’d loaned her over the years — for college classes, for back-rent, for a new car.  The phone would ring and ring, your name large in her Caller ID, and she never picked up.

But now, now that the world’s ended, you’re suddenly family again.

“We’re siblings,” Callie says, banging on the metal door.  “Half your food seems fair, don’t you think?  I know you’ve stocked up.”

You have to admit, she looks rough.  Through the wire-reinforced glass you notice some of Callie’s hair has fallen out.  Her lips look dry and cracked as she tries to smile.  Smudges of dirt mar her complexion and only partly cover purplish oozing sores on her cheeks and at the corners of each eye.

It’s really hard to look at her.

So you slide the panel shut over the window.  You put fingers in your ears to block your sister’s pleading, and her angry fists banging at your door.

 

 

 

April 9

1821 — Birthdate of Charles Baudelaire

 

Your current situation brings to mind the poem “Une Charogne” (“A Carcass”) from Baudelaire’s Flowers of Evil.

“Do you recall that thing we saw, my love, / That beautiful summer morning…”

Two lovers out for a stroll discover a decaying carcass, its legs in the air “like a lusty woman,” the body swollen with poison and gasses:

“And the sky regards the superb carcass / Like a flower in bloom…”

The odor is so overpowering that the narrator’s companion nearly faints.  But the poem does not look away — in fact, it luxuriates in queasy details of buzzing flies and clusters of maggots, finding unexpected beauty…a “strange music” within the decay.

For Baudelaire, the encounter is unusual.  Perhaps, if corpses appeared around every corner, the sight might not have inspired his poetry.

For you, a surgical mask filters a portion of the odor, but not enough.  As your shovel slides beneath the body, the swollen stomach bursts and a cloud of gnats rises into diseased air.  You step back quickly, waving aside the spray of insects, then wield the shovel again, heaving the lower half into your wooden cart.  The upper half has stuck to the pavement, which is why the body tore.  You scrape at it, gathering the solid remains while foul liquid oozes onto the road and nearby grass.

One down, another dozen or so to go.  You’ll wheel the cart to the edge of town, burn the multiple corpses, and hope you’ve curtailed further spread of the infection.

Sometimes you catch yourself trying to recognize a face, trying to match it with the list of the missing.  But it’s better not to know.

It will be a long day. You move to the next carcass, more hideous and contorted than the one before, and wish you had a poet’s ability to find beauty in decay.

 

 

 

April 8

1908 – death of August Deter, first patient diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease

 

“Do you recognize me?”

“I wonder if I should.”

“What if I told you I was your child?”

“A child would be smaller.  I know that much.”

“Tell me where you are.”

“Here.  That’s plain.  Are you a doctor?  You look like a doctor.”

“No, I’m a visitor.”

“I had a daughter once.  I think, a son.”

“Can you tell me either of their names?”

“One of them died.  The dead one has your eyes.”

“Mother.  Take this marker, and write your name on this board.”

“I’m not signing anything.  You lose things when you sign them.”

“You’ve written ‘Greer.’  Do you know who Greer is?”

“My husband?  My wife?  It’s someone I’ve hurt, isn’t it.  I’m sorry.”

“Mother, do you know what’s happened?  Do you know what condition the world is in?”

“I’m not sure.”

“Should I tell you again?  Tell you again why you’re here, and why you shouldn’t leave this room?”

“I don’t think so.  I don’t like your expression, doctor.  Leave me.”

You do as your mother requests.  Tonight, she will try to sleep, in this small room that’s her whole, perpetually unfamiliar world.  When she wakes to a new day the confusion will persist, interrupted by bouts of painful awareness, not of what she’s lost, but how much.

April 7

A Sporting Apocalypse

(continued from April 6 entry)

 

Having your dreams crushed at an early age helped readjust your priorities.  No longer an Olympic hopeful, you concentrated on your studies, graduated cum laude and secured a well-paying job, developed many close friendships.

Among your friends, however, you tried to steer conversation away from sports.  As you argued, one’s favorite team was usually arbitrary — affected by birth city, an inexplicable liking for a particular player, affection for a uniform color or a cartoon mascot.  And yet (you’d say), once that arbitrary choice has been made, “your” team’s success can become all-consuming, as if winning is a matter of life or death.  You get emotionally invested in something that has no meaning.  Right?

Friends would nod, and you knew some of them agreed with your logic.  Some of them still wore a football jersey on casual Friday.

All of them are gone now.  The super-flu wiped out 99% of the population.   Society has pretty much crumbled.  No job, no friends…

But sports, unfortunately, remain.

The reason?  Only the youngest and healthiest could outlast the illness.  Basically, the athletic types.

The new competition is part boxing, part jousting.  Combatants improvise weapons from scavenged metal and glass.  Crowds form a wide circle, essentially creating an improvised arena.

A residue of your daily childhood training kept your body strong enough to make you one of the “lucky” spectators.  There’s no money, so nobody has placed a bet — but people guessed about a fighter’s agility; considered what damage a modified lacrosse stick might cause versus, say, the brutal strength of a concrete block.  They chose a favorite, rooted for him or her to win…even though it shouldn’t matter at all.

The crowd continued to cheer at bloodshed.  Their priorities were wrong, just as yours had been during your days of obsessive practice, your futile childhood dreams of Olympic stardom.

We’ve already lost, you want to shout at them.  The game is barbaric.  People are slowly killing each other, for sport, finishing the job of the illness they survived.  Look at how that lance sweeps through the air, barely missing the woman’s head…  Look at…  Look…

And, my god, the way she ducked the attack, her body twisting in the air with the grace of a swan, her long blonde hair flipping above her head, stray strands tangled in the weapon’s glass teeth before she pulled away and countered with a forceful kick.  There’s actually beauty here.  A beauty you’ve missed for so long.

You’ve picked your favorite.  You cheer her on to the end.

 

April 6

International Day of Sport for Development and Peace

 

Your dream was to be in the Olympics.  You started training at age 5 — which was also when you learned that some children began their training as early as 2. This news encouraged you to work harder.  Although your coach insisted you take one day off each week, you’d continue Sundays in your home gym, ensuring six-plus hours of practice every day.

Even when you weren’t physically practicing, you ran through routines in your head, imagining your body’s movement through air, hands on the bars, feet landing firm on the mat.  You dreamed of exhibitions, try-outs, then selection for the US team and the glory of gold.

Perhaps, in real life, you’d settle for bronze…but why dream, if you weren’t going to dream big?

The physical demands were hard.  You also neglected your schoolwork, and other social activities.  Other hopefuls at your gym seemed to have richer lives.  Although they didn’t practice as much as you did, they still managed to score higher on their exhibition routines.

Which made you feel like you should work harder.

And made you feel worse when you failed to qualify.  Not just for the Olympics, but for the regionals.  You could always try again, you told yourself.  But then a leg injury essentially ended your career.  At 9 years old.

You were too young to handle that kind of disappointment.  It felt like your life was over.

Of course, as you learned later, worse things could happen…

[Continued in tomorrow’s entry]

 

 

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