Norman Prentiss

Excerpts from The Apocalypse-a-Day Desk Calendar

Lava Scape

September 10

National TV Dinner Day

 

“TV dinners aren’t as good as they used to be.  The classic meals sat in a foil tray, the food all in proper compartments.  You heated them in a real oven, so everything got crisp — not the mushy stuff that comes out of a microwave.

“My favorite was a fried chicken entrée that also came with a hunk of chocolate cake in the top middle compartment.  The company got rid of the cake when they shifted to microwave, and after that the chicken skin was like a wet paper towel draped over each drumstick.

“With the ‘classic oven’ meals, you didn’t have to do any fancy preparation.  No heating half-way through then stirring or quarter-turning, lifting and replacing the plastic film.  With the foil meals, you just stuck them in the oven and waited until they were done.  They came out almost as tasty as you’d get at the corner cafeteria.

“None of those peas or carrots jumping the barrier and mixing with the meatloaf gravy.  Everything in its proper place, I say.”

The seated gentleman keeps talking as the attendant carries a tray down the line of chairs.  He’s the oldest survivor on the ship, so the staff tends to humor him.  The other passengers, however, have grown weary of his nostalgia.

The attendant hands over a plastic disk of small, lidded compartments.  Various initials identify each of the sections.

In his time at the nursing home, the old man has seen enough of these organizers. “My pills,” he says.

Next to him, a teenage boy smiles.  “That’s your dinner, Pops.  Protein under the ‘P’ tab, dairy under ‘D.’  ‘GV’ stands for green vegetable.”  He can’t stop himself from adding, “No stirring or flipping.  They’re all in separate compartments, just the way you like it.”

September 9

National Teddy Bear Day

 

It’s that part of the movie you hate, where the annoying child starts screaming for Teddy, and the parents look at each other with sympathy, and one of them begins to weaken, and…

No you can’t go back, because:

a) The house is burning.

b) A tornado is heading down the street.

c) A psychotic killer waits in the child’s bedroom, machete raised.

d) The giant alien tripod blasts laser beans through the roof, the walls all tumbling down.

e) All of the above.

Oh, but honey, it’s her favorite toy.  Our darling will never sleep without Teddy.

And Dad runs back, or Mom.  Or while they’re arguing, the kid’s climbed out the back of the RV to attempt her own doomed rescue mission.

A rescue mission for a stuffed animal.

The variation is more understandable when it’s an actual pet, or a forgotten baby brother (bonus points if he’s named Teddy).

But a stuffed animal?  Ridiculous.  In real life, when people worry they’re going to die, they stop caring about material things and get the heck out.  Necessities only:  forget Grandma’s music box or the family photo album or the baseball card collection; bring food and a water bottle, a blanket and clothes, a Swiss Army knife and a compass.

Your theories are put to the test when air raid sirens wake your family in the middle of the night.  You rush the kids out the door, giving each of them little time to pack a single bag before you pile into the car and head toward the nearest shelter.

Before you’ve reached the end of the block, your youngest shouts from the back seat:  “Binky!”

And you don’t go back.  There’s no discussion with your spouse; you don’t even share a worried glance.  You just keep driving.

Because you’re saving their lives.

When you get to the shelter, it’s crowded and suffocatingly hot.  You try to distract your children from the rumble of bombs overhead.   There are cots all along the floor, and the shelter provided their own blankets, food, and water.

At night, your children can’t fall asleep.  A few cots over, someone else’s little girl curls her arm around a teddy bear, her eyes closed and calm.  Nearby, a family huddles close around a photo album, sharing whispered memories.

From across the room you hear the ratchet of a winding key, then the slow plink of a music box lullaby.

September 8

International Literacy Day

 

Dillon was always grateful that he knew how to read.

All those slogans they threw at him in grade school — about the importance of literacy, about how books opened up the world — well, in his experience they turned out to be true.

He especially loved novels and picture books that took him to faraway places.  Treasure Island, The Arabian Nights, and Around the World in 80 Days fascinated him as a child, and made him dream of places he might someday visit. In more mature years, he gravitated towards travel memoirs, rich with detail about exotic locations — or guidebooks, with lists and prices for restaurants and hotels, and color photographs of tourist attractions.

In his reading selections, Dillon shunned stories set in fanciful places such as Narnia or Middle Earth.  The events or characters might be fictional — and even some travel narratives tended to stretch the truth a bit — but he wanted the places to be real, described with authentic details.

He avoided books about Oz or Neverland or (god forbid) the Moon or some other outer space absurdity.  He’d always considered it a waste of time to read about a place he’d never have a chance to visit.

When the sirens blared their evacuation warnings, Dillon scooped a few of his favorite memoirs and guidebooks into his backpack.  He planned to dream of other places, as he waited for the world to return to normal.

It never did.

The idea of armchair travel no longer appealed to him.  These days, travel was too dangerous.  Most of the places in his favorite guidebooks no longer existed.

He thought of a new slogan schools might use, to encourage literacy in the next generation… if there was going to be one.

Reading makes you aware of dreams you no longer have.

September 7

The Dumb Show of the Apocalypse (Part 2)

[…continued from September 6 entry…]

 

As your community gathered in the auditorium, the buzz of excitement about the upcoming show made you think you’d been too churlish in your initial judgment.  The visitors wove through the crowd performing acrobatic tricks, comical pantomimes, and small feats of magic, and you decided these entertainments are just what everyone needed: a distraction from their day-to-day troubles.

The members of the travelling troupe have managed to clean themselves up a bit, but you wonder what they’ll do for costumes or props when it comes time for the main event.  They seemed mostly empty handed when they arrived at the front gates of the facility.

One of the performers separated himself from the crowd and raised his floppy-brim hat in the air.  This is the same man who spoke at the gates, petitioning for entrance, and you gather he’s the leader of the troupe.  The director.

He waved the hat in a circle, a kind of gather-round motion, and the individual members of the troupe stopped their dancing or their back flips, mimed closing a door or slid silk scarves back into coat sleeves, and they all formed a circle around their leader.  The arrangement looked very much like a football huddle, and an excited murmur from the audience served to mask any whispered strategies among the players.

After a few minutes, the youngest actor rolled away from the huddle with a series of cartwheels.  The other actors followed him to the raised platform at the front of the auditorium — typically used for speeches from the President of your containment facility as she assigned chores or explained the latest reduction in food rations…but tonight, the platform would be a theatrical stage.

The actors stood in a line, taking an initial bow in unison.  The troupe’s leader flung his hat aside, then raised his forefinger perpendicular to his lips as a signal for silence.  Other actors made the same gesture, then they parted to assume their places for the start of the show.

Again the child scampered into action, pulling a large burlap sack to the front of the stage.  He untied the loose rope at the top, and reached in to retrieve several items in turn, which he distributed to various players.

Some of the items were articles of clothing. Others were cans or packets of food, or tools, or sentimental items such as jewelry or ceramic figurines or a child’s rattle.

You recognize the rattle, since it belonged to your son when he was a baby and you could never bear to part with it.

A few agitated cries rise from the audience, as other viewers recognize clothes or valuables from their own homes in this gated community.  In the hour leading up to the main performance, the scampering child must have stolen the items.

The lead actor steps forward, waving his arms to calm the crowd’s dissent.  He held his hands over his heart, then unfolded his arms with cupped hands in a gesture of offering.  The implication, you realized, is that all items would be returned to their rightful owners after the performance.  Other viewers must have arrived at the same conclusion, since they settled down without further complain.

After all, if these visitors were actually planning to rob them, they would have been foolish to reveal their stolen items to an angry crowd.

While the audience settled down, the actors began to work with various items, one man buttoning a clean shirt over his own patchwork smock; a woman fitting an emerald necklace over their sunburnt, grimy neck then admiring herself in a pretend mirror; an elderly woman holding an unopened can of food and waving an invisible spoon over it to soothe her hunger.

The child fell into a fetal position on the floor, one thumb suckled in his mouth while the other hand held a rattle high — your rattle — and shook it in a steady rhythm that seemed to inspire the other actors to commit fully to their own pantomimes.

You realize the troupe is following an old-fashioned theatrical tradition by beginning with a “dumb show.”  That is, a brief wordless prelude, miming the general actions that will be explored more fully in the actual play.

The leader of the troupe didn’t have an item, but he strolled self-importantly from one actor to another, sizing up each of their possessions.  He stepped to the front of the platform, smiled, then brightened in an exaggerated “light bulb” moment.  The elderly woman gets his attention first.  He crosses to her quickly, mimes slapping the spoon out of her hand, then wrenches the can of food from her grip.

In response, the old woman contorts her face in an expression of agony and disappointment.  She drops her hands to her belly, rubs it to show her familiarity with hunger — and you get the clear sense the actor’s performance is based on long and painful experience.

The leader places the can of food in the burlap sack, which represents his store of plundered treasure.  As the rattle continues its frantic beat, he crosses to strip the clean shirt off an actor’s torso, and the man responds by covering himself in a mime of naked shame.  Next, he forces a woman to surrender her lovely necklace, and the actress deflates as if her whole world, her entire concept of beauty has been stolen from her.

It is the same with each of the actors, but the cumulative effect is overpowering — one person after another, robbed of whatever they valued most.

Finally, the leader takes the rattle from the infant, and silence engulfs the large auditorium.  He places the rattle in the burlap sack, then ties the sack over his shoulder, while the remaining actors convey their awful sense of loss.

This isn’t escapism.  These actors who entered their safe community have forced everyone to relive the horrors of the apocalypse — all in the pantomime summary of a ten-minute dumb show.

The scripted performance that follows is even more brutal.  Every word, every gesture strikes home.  It is a terrible reminder.

At the conclusion, nobody in the audience applauds.  But some of them go back to their homes, and return with gifts for the performers.

You let them keep your son’s rattle, and offer them a packet of dried fruit and a blanket of soft cotton.

That night, the troupe leaves with two burlap sacks full of gifts.  You shut the community gate as they exit, and you hope they never return.

September 6

1642 — English Parliament bans theatrical performances

 

A small gathering of beggars approached the front gate of the containment facility.  You were the first line of defense, which meant it was your job to send them away.

“We have no spare food to offer.”  You stared above their heads as you spoke, trying not to register the sorry state of their clothing, the sad desperation in their faces.  “We are not interested in trade.   Seek comfort elsewhere.”

The beggar in front removed a floppy soot-speckled hat from his head and bowed.  “No worries, ma’am.  It’s not our intention to impose, but to entertain.”  He straightened and gestured at his companions, waving the hat in an exaggerated flourish.  “We’re a small band of travelling performers, and we wish to put on a show.”

A grimace of distaste surely flashes into your expression before you have time to control it.  Actors.  During difficult times, the theatre was often little more than a publically sanctioned encouragement of frivolity and immorality.  Now that so many governments had fallen after The Great Illness, it was only a matter of time before “entertainers” tried to infect surviving communities with their subversive ideas.

“Definitely not interested.”  You cross your arm firm over your chest, reinforcing that the gates will stay closed.

Unfortunately, Marbury arrived early to relieve you at the guard post.  He engaged with the would-be visitors, and seemed particularly taken with a lanky bell-capped dancer at the back of the troupe.  She clasped her hands to mime prayer, looked to the heavens (which hadn’t been kind of late), then looked pleadingly to Marbury and to you.

Meanwhile, a small child who looked like he’d just climbed out of a chimney scurried around in the dirt, crab walking and then rolling like a tumbleweed or an over-eager puppy.  When he finally slowed and stood, he held up four large rocks he’d gathered during his gymnastics, and began juggling.

“The kid’s pretty good,” Marbury said.  “Let them through.”

 

[…continued tomorrow…]

 

September 5

The Quiet Farm (Part 9, conclusion)

 

[…continued from September 4 entry…]

 

Lara’s stomach hurt, the way it sometimes did during her childhood when she thought of her absent mother.  As the pain in her stomach intensified, the photograph Corrinne had given her transformed once again.  The toothsome smile disappeared from Lara’s younger face, and her mother, too, slowly disappeared from the image.

“The truth is painful,” Corrinne said.  “I can give you a different kind of pain.”

As she spoke — this guest in Lara’s home, now an intruder into her bedroom — a red stain began to appear over Corrinne’s stomach, blood soaking through the fabric of her clothing.

The window was still closed, curtains pulled to shut out the light, but noises from outside began to assert themselves.  Squeals and neighs, braying and lowing and clucking from all the animals who’d remained silent the past few days.  Lara imagined their stomachs bursting as they cried out.  She imagined the animals fighting to escape their pens, biting at wood and wire with tender teeth, splinters and sharp metal tearing at their lips.

And her own stomach began to hurt even more — not the nervous pain of a child overcome by guilt, or the tight ache caused by hunger.  This pain was sharp and rhythmic, following the beat of her heart…or the regular motion of grinding teeth.

Corrinne was no longer standing beside the bed.  Lara glanced down, saw the glow of strawberry blonde hair as a head hovered over her stomach.  Digging in.  Chewing.

And in the intoxication of a final dream-vision, Lara saw the nightmare of the world outside:  on her own farm, the animals battened upon by humanoid creatures that gathered strength during the day and attacked at night; and the Headleys, deceived by a young visitor and drained one by one, through their stomachs, and their bodies hidden throughout their home, Andrew flattened behind a cabinet, his mother curled behind a stove and his father folded into the fireplace chimney; and similar invasions at other houses in town; and beyond, spreading through the countryside, all natural life overtaken by powerful beings that had no need for radios or television, automobiles or airplanes, and this terrible vision spread further, and the pain in Lara’s stomach grew worse and worse and…

The pain ceased.  Lara felt suddenly calm, as if she stood in a sun-brightened field.  She felt young again, and the thought made her smile.  Her mother placed a loving arm around her shoulder, and her father took a picture.

 

September 4

The Quiet Farm (Part 8)

 

[…continued from September 3 entry…]

 

When Lara next woke, she couldn’t be certain what time it was.  She was still dressed in her daytime clothes, but the room was dark.

Had she fallen asleep again, and actually slept through until night?

She noticed something strange about the room.  Lara always left the blinds up, the curtains partly parted.  She wanted natural light during the day, and liked to wake to sunlight each morning.

Someone had closed the blinds and tied the curtains together.

Corrinne.  She had come into Lara’s room and made it dark.  To help her sleep, perhaps?

Then Lara got the unsettling feeling that she wasn’t in her bedroom at all.  She’d ended up in the room where her father died, had climbed into the bed she’d made available to her guest.

She realized Corrinne might be in bed beside her.  The girl was always so quiet, barely making noise as she breathed.  Lara listened in the dark room, tensed for the sensation of faint movement in the mattress.

The room.  Her eyes slowly began to adjust, and she began to recognize features of her own bedroom.  Lara reached out and patted the mattress on either side.  Corrinne wasn’t in her bed.

Because she was standing right in front of the darkened window.  Her ragged clothing hung down from her neck, blending with the shadows — her flowing hair and flushed face seemed to float above the fabric, her lower body obscured just as it had been hidden by blankets each day.

Once again, Lara found herself unable to move.  Perhaps she was still asleep.  She felt tension in her jaw, and she fought to form questions.

“Don’t bother speaking,” Corrinne said.  “You don’t understand what needs to be said.”

The head floated closer.  A pale, luminous arm extended from the sleeve of Corrinne’s robe-like garment.  She held a small square of paper in her hand.

“Take it,” Corrinne said, and suddenly Lara could move.  She grasped the paper, and brought it closer to her face.

Impossible.  Not that she could see the image perfectly, that it glowed with its own light in the dark bedroom.  No, the image itself was impossible.

For it was a photograph.  A baby she instantly recognized as herself, cradled in an older woman’s arms.  The woman sits in a rocking chair beside baby Lara’s crib…even though, in other pictures, the chair is always empty.

Her mother.

“I can make that happen,” Corrinne said.  “And more.”

The picture fluttered in her hand, as if it wanted to shake itself out of her grip.  When Lara looked again, she saw the picture her father took on her eighteenth birthday.  Instead of her forced, closed-mouth smile, teenage Lara smiles with bright teeth.  Her mother stands next to her, a loving arm around her daughter’s shoulder.

 

[…continued tomorrow…]

September 3

The Quiet Farm (Part 7)

[…continued from September 2 entry…]

“Were you in my room?  I dreamed that you stood right there, and watched me while I slept.”

It was the same question Lara had planned to ask Corrinne — but her guest had asked it first.

“I’ve stopped in a few times,” Lara said.  “To check on you.  To see if you needed anything.”

“And did I?”

Lara didn’t respond.  Corrinne had referred to this as “her” room — but she hadn’t earned that right.  She’d been here two days and two nights, and by all appearances hadn’t moved from the bed.  She also hadn’t revealed anything meaningful about herself, hadn’t shared any recollections about her strange illness, or the even stranger disappearance of the entire Headley family.

Or anything she might know about the broken radios and televisions and telephones, the lack of cars along the road or planes in the sky.

Lara felt too weary to investigate such things herself.  Maybe she didn’t want to know.

She could barely summon the energy to step outside to check on the animals.  The food from yesterday remained untouched in the feeding stations.  The horses crowded at the far end of the fence.  The sheep avoided her as she stepped into their pen — they opened their mouths as if planning to bleat, but no sounds came out.

Tomorrow.  If things weren’t better tomorrow, she’d drive into town for help.

Later that evening, after a nap that lasted longer than she expected, Lara once again went to Corrinne’s room.  She tapped gently at the door before entering.  She’d brought a glass of water, and a small plate with bread and cheese, and she set them on the endtable beside her still-sleeping guest.

Then she turned to the wide bureau at the opposite end of the room, leaning down to open the bottom drawer.  She lifted out a dark blue photo album with the word “Family” embossed on the cover.  The first pages contained carefully arranged photos, corner fastened with handwritten captions beneath.  Those images captured her father and mother — their courtship and wedding, some candid shots of family gatherings.  Then, following strict chronology, images of her mother pregnant, followed by baby Lara in the hospital then home in the crib.  There were no pictures of Lara and her mother together.

The second half of the album was more haphazard, with some photos taped down and others tucked loosely between pages.

Among the loose photos, Lara found the one she was looking for.  Her father had taken it on the day of her eighteenth birthday.  She remembered her father had cried a few minutes after taking the picture.  He often cried on her birthday — an occasion he admitted brought him great joy, mixed with terrible sadness.

Lara looked at her younger self in the Polaroid, then held the image up to compare it to her sleeping guest.

No, she hadn’t been mistaken.  Corrinne looked very much like herself at eighteen.  When the girl next woke, she would show her the picture and ask what the resemblance might mean.

In the photo, eighteen-year-old Lara looked healthy, with a forced, closed-mouth smile.  In her father’s bed, Corrinne unconsciously mimicked that smile — which was odd enough, perhaps a simple coincidence as her guest dreamed of better times.

The other odd thing was how Corrinne’s face flushed with more health, as if to better match Lara’s image from years ago.  Her guest was getting better.

And Lara couldn’t help but think:  she’s getting better, while I grow weak, and the animals outside grow silent and sullen and refuse to touch their food.

 

[…continued tomorrow…]

 

September 2

The Quiet Farm (Part 6)

 

After yesterday’s exertions, Lara felt drained.  Instead of starting her daily chores around the farm, she returned to her own bed to take a brief nap.

She woke in late afternoon.  For a moment, she wondered why she was in her bed, fully clothed.  Then she remembered herself, and thought about the untended animals in their pens outside.

Lara gathered hay and grain and slop, and she dropped generous portions in the appropriate feeding stations.  Strangely, the animals continued to shy away from her; they also didn’t rush forward, pushing each other out of the way to get to their meals.

Inside, her guest remained in bed, covers pulled to her neck.  Corrinne slept silently, and her body made no movements beneath the blankets.  Lara considered touching her as she slept, finding the rise and fall of her stomach as she had the previous night.  She watched again for some movement, with the same attention she’d given her father in his final days.  This time, she watched for signs of life, rather than its dwindling end.

That night, Corrinne’s second in her home, Lara again had trouble sleeping.  She’d accomplished little during the day, and now that it was too late, she wished she’d driven into town for news.  No matter which dials she had turned, she still couldn’t get a signal on the radio or television.  Some background music might have been nice, to soothe her nervous suspicion that something had gone wrong in the world.

No music, but as she finally drifted off Lara heard whistling.  Her bedroom door creaked open, and she felt someone watching her.  Soft footsteps trod along the floor and slowly circled the bed.  The steps fell in a tentative rhythm — an elderly person on unsteady feet, or someone learning to walk again after a serious accident.

In her dream, a face hovered close over her own, and Lara kept her eyes shut to avoid seeing the visitor.  She heard the moist pop of dry lips parting in the dark.  Then a story slowly emerged, in the familiar drone of her father’s voice.  A sweet and warm breath flowed over her face and neck as the words flowed, offering a comfort that the story’s content denied.   The next morning, Lara could not recall the specifics of the story, but she remembered the sensation of hearing it in her dream.  It was far more terrifying than any of the local legends her father used to recount for her and for visiting neighbors.  In the dream, she wanted the voice to stop, she wanted to reach out in the dark, cover the mouth with her hands to keep it from speaking the next words, as the story grew more and more unpleasant.

But she was paralyzed in her bed, a captive and frightened listener.

[…continued tomorrow…]

September 1

The Quiet Farm (Part 5)

 

[…continued from August 31 entry…]

 

So strange, to sense life in her father’s room once again.

Lara knocked on the door, crossed the bedroom with the intention of pulling back the curtains, lifting the shades.

“Please, don’t.”  Even the faint bleed of sunlight around the window’s edges was enough to make her guest squint her eyes.  Corrinne’s arm lifted, as if she prepared to throw it across her face like a stereotypical movie heroine, ankle caught in the tracks as a speeding train approached.

“The natural light will do you good,” Lara said.  But she lowered her own arms, kept the window covered.   “You’ll feel better once you’re out of bed, moving around.”

“The time is not yet right.”

Corrinne made no attempt to rise, and Lara wondered once again what trauma the girl had experienced, what damage had been done to her young body and inexperienced psyche.  How many hours must she stay in bed before rejoining the living?

“I wonder if you got up during the night,” Lara said.  “I thought I heard someone walking in the house.”  Then, after a moment of hesitation, she added:  “Someone whistling.”

“I never learned to whistle.”  As proof, she pursed her lips and blew a weak, silent stream of air through them.

Thinking some food would aid her guest’s recovery, Lara offered to bring her some breakfast.  After her own uneasy night, Lara didn’t actually want to prepare the meal, so she was secretly glad when Corrinne declined the offer.  Corrinne said she needed to build up more energy to eat — though perhaps her phrasing had been different; perhaps she’d said “to feed” instead of “to eat.”

 

[…continued tomorrow…]

 

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