Norman Prentiss

Excerpts from The Apocalypse-a-Day Desk Calendar

Lava Scape

December 21

National Flashlight Day (Winter Solstice, Northern Hemisphere) 


You remember what it used to be like the day before a predicted snowstorm.  People would rush to grocery stores to stock up on essential items:  toilet paper, bottled water, and batteries for flashlights.

And then the storm wouldn’t hit as predicted.  You’d feel foolish with all that extra water and two-ply paper.  Maybe the next time you wouldn’t bother to rush to an over-crowded store, fight strangers for the last $20 snow shove.

Of course, that’s the time when a storm would actually happen.

Maybe it would even be worse than predicted.   Not just snow or ice or gusting wind, but something man-made added to the mix:  an unnatural thunder cleaving the sky, a chemical dust darkening the heavens.

You manage fine without the shovel.  You use a broom and dustbin to push aside the worst of the snow and ash.

Water is plentiful, but it tastes different each time — no matter how much you boil or try to filter the cloudy liquid.

As for toilet paper:  well, the alternatives are uncomfortable, but you’ve learned to lower your expectations for dignity and hygiene.

The batteries are actually what you miss the most.  In your hemisphere, they used to call today “Flashlight Day,” since it was the shortest day of the year — the day when a limited span of sunlight made flashlights and batteries into essential items.

You long for an even light that doesn’t flicker or give off heat.  You also want batteries to power an old-fashioned radio or portable cassette player — to hear musical instruments again, and the sound of human voices following a melody.

Also nice would be the predictable click of your travel alarm clock, the jerking sweep as its second-hand ticks a rhythmic time; or your small desk fan with its plastic blades buzzing a soothing blanket of white noise.

Such sounds would remind you of a simpler time.   Instead, lacking batteries, the rhythmic clicks and buzzes and music create a desperate symphony only in your memory.  From outside, the actual sounds indicate time moving too fast, slipping away as people scream, begging to be let inside as the sky splits open and ash continues to fall in dark, merciless clumps.




December 20

The Exterminator’s Visit (Part 7, conclusion)


Ethel thought she was losing her mind.  She wished she could rewind a tape, to clarify if she really heard what she thought she’d heard.

Had the animal actually spoken her name?

A paw pushed through beside the round, hairless head.   The paw had long curving claws that extended with small sharp points.  The arm was flat like a wrinkled flipper, but with a sharp bend at its mushy elbow.

Another arm followed, with the same flipper shape and claws at the rounded end.  The elbows hooked above the torn opening, and the animal started to emerge from the toppled box.

Ethel didn’t know what the thing was.  Not a cat, certainly, and she prayed it wasn’t a human baby.  As it pulled more of itself out, its torso was round like a baby’s, but the skin was wet and worm-pink with that horrible loose sag.  Short hairs, bristled like porcupine quills, dotted its back.  The thing probably weighed about thirty pounds.

And it was wounded.  The snapped end of a pencil protruded from its left side, and blood guided through the wrinkles and folds.  The animal shifted to one side and then the other as it struggled to emerge from the opening, and strange plastic bumps appeared along its stomach:  bright blue and green and red and yellow.  It had rolled through a dish of plastic push-pins.

Ethel realized she’d stored stationary supplies in the large box:  pencils and pens, scissors and letter openers, clips and pins, all tumbling loose when the box fell over.  Like a burst of shrapnel, puncturing and tearing into this awful creature.

Making him angry.

The rest of the animal wriggled out.  Instead of legs, two thick tendrils braided together to form a fleshy tail.

Horrid, unnatural thing.  An over-large tadpole, with flipper-like arms and a grotesque mockery of a human head.

“Devil!” she cried out — for who else could have sculpted such a hideous monster into dark life?

The creature examined her with wide, angry eyes — eyes clouded with age and unnatural wisdom.   Blood poured from the wound in the creature’s side.  A blue push-pin dropped from the creature’s stomach with an absurd plink.

“Ethel Finley,” the creature said.  Then it hissed.  Its tadpole tail coiled against a pile of fallen papers, its flipper-arms raised as if preparing to leap.

She recalled the man who visited earlier, and wondered if she’d actually heard him running from her home, slamming the door behind him…or if she’d heard his scream, and the crash of her books and bins and papers falling to bury him.

Ethel gripped the tiny flashlight and looked frantically for something, anything she might use as a weapon.

She wished she hadn’t convinced herself the gentleman caller had been a spy from the nursing home.  She could really use a good exterminator right now.





December 19

The Exterminator’s Visit (Part 6)


“Kitty,” Ethel said, tentative.  “Kitty?”

No answer.

She looked again at the box with the hole in the side.  It was a heavy one, precariously balanced on one step, and the overhang supported by smaller bins on the step beneath.  On closer inspection, the paw prints had an unusual shape:  it was impossible to tell which direction the animal had been walking when it made the tracks.

Whether it had crawled out of the box, or in.

Ethel set down the flashlight and gripped the box by its top corners.  She began to rock it back and forth.

The weight within the box shifted.  Books or outdated TV remotes, or pillows soaked through with water.  A fresh gurgle of slime poured out the opening.

She held still and waited. Again, a weight shifted within the box.

Ethel retrieved the flashlight, aimed it through the opening.  The edges of the cardboard looked as if they’d been eaten away by sharp teeth.

On impulse, she slapped the side of the box, and metallic contents rattled within.  She uttered an angry “Shoo!” then kicked the box hard with her good leg, taunting the stray to reveal itself.

Finally, an answering hiss responded.

A cat.  She knew all along it was only a cat.

The sound came from the opening of the cardboard box, but it also seemed to come from all directions at once.  It filled the stairway.

The box began to sway on its own.

Ethel stepped back, her hand pressing against a trash bag filled with Styrofoam packing material.  The side of the bag was warm and sticky, and now that foul smell coated both her hands.

Another hiss, a rustle.  Then another shake of the box.

The cat growled, its voice muffled by the rattle of metal and plastic.  It was one of those weird animal cries that approximated human speech, then yawned into an incomprehensible howl.  Her husband, always more sentimental, would have remarked:  Oh, Kitty tried to call your name or, She’s telling us she’s hungry!

Then the box fell over.  It crashed into the path she’d begun clearing up the middle of the stairs, and the movement within grew frantic, an animal scratching at a closed door or fighting its way out of a burlap sack.  Items clattered within, cardboard thumped and bulged, and Ethel screamed “Shoo!” again, kicked the box once more for good measure.

A wail of pain rose from the rubble.  She thought again of her sentimental husband.   It’s like a baby.  Doesn’t Kitty sound like a baby, Ethel?

No, nothing like a baby.  More like an animal stuck in a trap.   Ethel felt an unexpected pang of guilt:  she’d set this trap, without realizing it.  The poor animal had wandered inside for warmth, only to have the world fall onto it.

But she’d set a trap for herself, too.  Loose items had fallen behind her in the commotion, filling in the path she’d cleared for her upward climb.  Ethel would have to back out slowly, redistributing bins and boxes into new stacks.  It would be a long, slow effort — lots of stooping and lifting and balancing.  She started with People and Us Weekly issues that had spilled to a lower step, then gathered Sunday newspaper supplements into the same pile.  All the while, the animal cried louder, almost as if it were deciding to chew off its own leg to escape.  Ethel wanted to rearrange the items carefully, to make sure the new piles were sturdy.  But she couldn’t concentrate with all that crying.

It’s like a baby.

It was not a baby, it was a wild animal.  A bulge pressed outward from the toppled box, and Ethel decided that’s where the cat was attempting to break free.  For some reason, she didn’t want to see the animal once it scurried out, and she worked faster to accomplish her own retreat.

That section of the box grew dark and damp, and a small split tore open in the wet cardboard.  In the flashlight glimmer, a moist pink line appeared, then opened into the twisted circle of an animal mouth.  The howl grew louder, and a fresh gust of animal breath assaulted her.  The cat’s tongue swished out from beneath, then a gurgle of that awful milky substance drooled out one side of the opening — a spoiled yellow-brown, with veins of blood and dust-gray flecks.  The mouth contorted and a round head forced through the enlarged rip in the toppled box.

It’s like a baby.

No, it was one of those freakish Egyptian cats.  Hairless, wrinkled even on its face, the skin loose and pink.   And yet it was like a human baby after all, with that pinched look of a newborn, but the head as large as a toddler’s, and instead of those wet red wrinkles, something more like the withered folds of an elderly person — the coiled creases Ethel saw on her own hands and arms, on her neck when she looked in the mirror.  Yet this stray didn’t have the dark tented ears she expected on a cat.  They were matted flat against the sides of the head, loose folds without the shape of cartilage — almost all lobe.

And its eyes.  Cloudy blue-gray, but with a cold, wide iris.  The head turned towards her, and the black irises flashed in the dim light.  The mouth opened in another angry howl.  “Ethel Finley,” it said.

Kitty tried to call your name.




[…concluded in December 20 entry…]


December 18

The Exterminator’s Visit (Part 5)


“Someone here?”  That was what TV characters usually said in their dark house, even though they were supposed to be alone and didn’t really hope for an answer.  Ethel Finley called her son’s name, too, wondering aloud if he’d visited for some obscure reason.

Her mind was fuzzy, but hadn’t someone else visited today?  That’s right:  a rude social worker, hoping to remove her from her home.  When did he leave?  Had he closed the door behind him?

As Ethel walked toward the front door, her hands brushed against the walls or touched lightly at familiar boxes and stacks of papers. She knew the shape of them — the layout, the arrangement — though she’d forgotten the contents of many boxes, or what lay beneath the early dates of newspaper or the latest slips of bulk-mail brochures and coupons.

She knew, also, which sections of floor would groan beneath her weight.  Her foot pressed down on a carpeted spot half-way through the hall, and the creak was slow and loud from her cautious step.

Ethel braced herself to turn the corner toward the front door — a possible source of the draft she’d felt in her dream.  The door might be wide open, with somebody hidden behind it, gloved fingers curled around the edge.   She had no weapons, that she could think of.  She couldn’t very well defend herself with a stack of newspapers.

That plastic rustle again, and another quick blast of chill air.  She wished the phone was working, so she could call the police.  But there was no guarantee the police would be helpful.  They’d dismiss her, like they always did:   Isn’t this the same old woman who fell down last week?  Now she’s hearing things…

She had to check by herself.  Slowly, slowly she peered around the corner.

The front door was closed.  Ethel let out a sigh of relief.  She’d been stupid, letting that silly dream get under her skin like that.  Nobody had broken in here.

Unless…somebody had broken in, then shut the door afterwards.  Quiet-like.  She also considered the social worker she’d invited into her living room for a chat: a strange man she’d let into her home, left him wondering what treasures might be hidden in these various boxes, what money and coins were tucked among stacks of papers.

Then she realized this was how Arthur wanted her to feel, whether he’d admit it or not.  Her son wanted her to feel unsafe in her own home.

Alone in that big house.  What if something happened to you?  What if I couldn’t get to you in time to help?

Nonsense.  If someone else were here, she would know it.  She could tell if a box was moved aside, or if one of her magazine stacks tilted at an unusual angle.  The hall and the entryway were fine.  Nothing had changed.

She half-remembered the tap of footsteps, the door slamming closed while she slept.  That’s when the spy from the nursing home — the man who pretended to be an exterminator — must have given up and gone away.

Another rustling noise reached her:  a flapping, louder this time, followed by a whistle.  Ethel could locate the source of the sound, now that she was closer:  the stairway on the other side of the front door.   She decided the sound was too random to be caused by a human intruder:  it was like wind through an autumn clothesline, rather than the methodical rummaging of a thief through boxes.

Ethel began a slow ascent up the carpeted stairs.  She couldn’t reach the banister, so used various stacks of papers to steady herself as she climbed.  Since she hadn’t needed to go upstairs in a long while, the effort made her feel out of breath.  It got darker with each step.  And colder.

A small glow beckoned to her from the landing, and Ethel reached down to recover a flashlight.  Probably a free gift that came with one of her Shopping Channel orders — it must have fallen off a stack of papers and somehow turned itself on.

The flashlight felt sticky in her hand, as if it had rolled through syrup.  She’d rinse it off later, in one of the upstairs bathrooms.

She aimed the beam at the other end of the landing, where the second set of stairs led upwards.  Some of the papers and bins had toppled over, and she worried it would take a mountain climber to get to the top.

Ethel felt air on her arms and even through the cotton of her house dress.  The flap and rustle of plastic was louder here — a cold breeze blowing through a broken upstairs window she must have fixed herself, long ago, the duct tape breaking loose and a draft reaching all the way down to her living room.

She’d find a way to patch it again.  One of the bins might have tape.

Ethel ran the flashlight beam over the papers and boxes.  Some of her best things — gadgets and supplies she knew she might need — she’d stored in plastic bins.  But then she’d piled a few things on top of the bins, and she hadn’t had time to label the contents as she’d intended.  (The label machine was in one of the Shopper Channel boxes in the downstairs hallway, she was fairly certain).

A few steps higher, she transferred a pile of old magazines to one side, then opened the bin she’d uncovered.  No tools or tape:  just a stack of bathrobes she’d ordered, still in their original shrink wrap.  She pushed another container aside, trying to recreate a path up the stairway, and it was a tight fit.

After she lifted a few cardboard boxes, Ethel realized she’d gotten water on the sleeve of her house dress.  She bundled the fabric to wring out the moisture, but as she squeezed the fabric felt sticky and warm, and a foul odor rose from her sleeve.  She lifted her hand to her face and the odor nearly overpowered her.  It wasn’t water.  The milky substance had flecks of foam and swirls of pink and gray throughout.  Ethel shook her hand in the air, but the noxious substance clung to her palm.

An animal must have entered through the upstairs window frame, Ethel decided.  She had pressed her sleeve into cat-sick without realizing it.  Strays lived off a nasty diet of garbage and field mice and birds, so their vomit would be unnatural and offensive.  That’s all this was.  Not a possum or a raccoon, she hoped — just a neglected stray that hoped for indoor warmth.

Was it still inside the house?  She aimed the flashlight beam over the stairway, a shifting ripple of light waved over uneven and fallen boxes and bins and papers.   Three steps up, a dark puddle oozed from beneath a large box with a jagged hole in one side.  She saw marks like paw prints in the sticky mush…and a line down the middle, as if a thick tail had been dragged through.




[…continued in December 19 entry…]

December 17

The Exterminator’s Visit (Part 4)


In her dream, Ethel Finley’s television broadcasts Simone’s final hour.  The character returns home, exhausted after another long day of scheming.  She reaches for her house keys, and there’s nothing ominous in the shot — broad daylight, and no tense music on the soundtrack.  But she’s alone, and Simone is never alone.  Why would viewers want to watch her walk into an empty house?

Unless it’s not empty.  The door opens wide into the house, and there’s a shadow behind it.  And…a gloved hand, its fingers curled around the edge of the door.

It’s always a gloved hand, so you can’t tell if the attacker is male or female.

Now inside, Simone reaches to shut the door, and she stops.  “Oh, it’s you,” she says.  It’s somebody she knows!  But they won’t show the trespasser, and Simone is smug — like in those confrontation scenes, because she always has the upper hand — and she says, “Go ahead.  I dare you.  I double dare you,” the camera stubborn on her face, moving closer so you can’t see anything else, and the other person will not speak, and Ethel wonders if it’s a knife or a gun or if those gloved hands would wrap around Simone’s throat and tighten, and then that smugness disappears for just a moment, Simone’s mouth opening, ready for a scream…

The scream comes, but it’s deeper than expected — like a man’s scream.  In her dream, Ethel grabs a remote, rewinds the scene to review what she’s heard, maybe uncover a clue she’s missed.  This time, Simone makes a low grunt, almost a growl as she confronts her intruder.  There’s a background crash, as if something topples over, but the onscreen actress doesn’t raise an eyebrow at the sound.

Maybe there was an accident on the set, and the producers forgot to edit it out.  Sometimes these shows were filmed live, and actors flubbed their lines or an overhead microphone dipped into the frame.

Sloppy.  Simone deserved better on her final day.

Ethel rewinds the scene to the very beginning.  Even though she already knows what is going to happen, she has to admit that the scene still feels a little scary.  The idea of an intruder in her own home actually gives her the chills, almost as if she feels a cool draft from outside.

“Go ahead.  I dare you.  I double dare you.”  This time, as Simone challenges her unwanted visitor, Ethel distinguishes a faint rustle on the soundtrack, like the flap of a plastic tarp in the wind.  A fresh draft raises gooseflesh on her arms.

She grabs the remote, planning to review the same scene again, fully expecting fresh variations on the soundtrack.   This time, while the image is still on pause, she hears another crash, a rush of footsteps, then the slamming of a door.

Ethel opened her eyes, stared at the blank screen and the unplugged television set…




[…continued in December 18 entry…]


December 16

The Exterminator’s Visit (Part 3)


Ethel Finley was not an idiot.  She knew that her house was a mess.  She knew this stranger — who pretended to be a salesman or an exterminator — was actually a social worker who’d come to assess her living conditions.  He’d snoop around a while, then write some biased report that declared her unfit to live on her own.

Just because she’d let a little clutter build up.

Well, life sneaks up on you.  Possessions accumulate like the process of aging: one day everything is fresh and in its proper place, then things start to shift or fade or lose their value.  Some things she intended to throw away, and she made stacks:  a discard pile, or two, but a save pile also, and at some point she’d grown careless and just made piles, intending to sort them later.  The higher the stacks, the more remote her memory of what lay at the bottom.

She would have to sort through them.  Make sure she didn’t, as the saying goes, throw out the baby with the bathwater.

A curious phrase, implying somebody would be careless enough to throw out a baby.  Babies weren’t garbage.  Nobody’d ever think that.  Yet that’s what they tried to do when you were old:  throw you out.  Toss you from your house and into some lonely apartment, or into some nursing home where you’d be surrounded by all the other discarded antiques.

No, thank you.  She’d earned the right to stay in her house, to die here when the Good Lord decided to take her.

I only want what’s best for you, her son Arthur would say.  Well, who should judge what’s best?  You can’t just waltz into somebody’s life a few hours each week and think you have all the answers.  She’d lived long enough to make decisions for herself.  After her husband passed, God rest his soul, Ethel had grown to appreciate solitude.  She had complete control over her day:  ate what she wanted, slept when she wanted, taped and watched her favorite TV programs when she wanted.  She phoned her grocery orders to the Food Lion and had them delivered, and looked forward to her newspaper and magazine subscriptions, and sometimes packages she ordered off the Home Shopping Channel.  This really was the best time of her life — and Arthur wanted to change that?

I think you’d be happier around people your own age.  That was another good one.  If The Doctor Show had a segment about the elderly, she’d change the channel:  too depressing.  There was a reason most programs focused on younger people:  they didn’t complain about arthritis and gout; they didn’t wear hearing aids and walk with canes or let people push them around in wheelchairs.  Nobody looks forward to a game of checkers or rummy with some half-asleep man who barely remembers your name.  She’d rather spend time watching the younger folk on her daytime plays.

Unfortunately, her television hadn’t been working lately, or the lights, or the telephone.  For the most part, she’d been fine.  She had plenty of candles to burn.  Her milk had gone warm in the icebox, but she ate her cereal dry, and still had several boxes in reserve.  No urgent need to call Food Lion for more supplies, and no need to call the power company, either:  they always fixed things on their own, flipped a switch somewhere and brought things back to life again.

It was just taking them more time than usual.

The television was actually her main worry.  She didn’t care about the news — whatever happened, local or national, never had much effect on her.  But her daytime plays moved forward, even when she couldn’t watch them — the characters schemed behind each others’ backs, fought or made love, got paralyzed or died or woke from a coma.  Ethel hated to miss the excitement.

The best she could do now was thumb through an issue of Daytime Monthly.  Ethel retrieved the magazine from the “save” pile at her end of the sofa — the most recent mail and newspapers she’d received, before the curious halt in deliveries last week.  She turned to an article about her favorite show, Their World, Too.

The article reported that the actress playing Simone had not renewed her contract.  Producers hadn’t recast the role, and the character didn’t have plans to move peacefully out of town, so that meant something dramatic was bound to happen.  A car accident, a fall off a cliff or down an elevator shaft.  Or maybe she’d be killed by one of her enemies:  the woman she fired, the man she blackmailed; a bitter ex-lover, or the sister she cheated out of her inheritance.  Ethel could predict some of the things Simone would say:  “I never loved you as much as you loved yourself,” and, “Enjoy your money now.  You won’t have it for long.”  She was evil, and probably deserved to die.

That crucial episode could actually be broadcast today, and Ethel wouldn’t get to see it.  She closed her eyes, tried to envision how the drama would unfold…




[…continued in December 17 entry…]

December 15

The Exterminator’s Visit (Part 2)


William patted at his coat and pants pockets, hoping he’d remembered to bring business cards.  “I’m an exterminator, like I told you.”

“Talking about my ‘fall’,” Mrs. Finley said, clearly agitated.  “You tell my son I’m perfectly healthy.  I can take care of myself.”

Her son?  From the limited research William had done, Arthur Finley was dead.  He’d lived in the city, inside last week’s blast radius.

“I don’t know anything about your son.”  William couldn’t find his business cards, but perhaps the company letterhead would convince her.  He tore open the envelope, and unfolded the page within.

“Fallout Exterminators” appeared at the top of the letter.  Beside the company name, a cartoon cockroach loomed large over a decimated cityscape.  The client’s name and address appeared beneath, followed by a brief mission statement, then a chart listing available services and rates.

This time, the woman accepted the letter.  She held the page far away from her face, brought it closer then away again.  “After recent terrible events…,” she read aloud, then glanced up.  “What terrible events?”

William was taken aback.  How could she not know?  He glanced across the room at the antique television set.  A power cord curled behind it, the plug flat on the carpet beneath an empty wall outlet.

If he didn’t have the nerve to tell her that her son had died, he certainly didn’t have the nerve to tell her about everybody else.  Instead, William retreated into phrases from his oft-rehearsed sales pitch.  “The vermin in the, uh, surrounding regions have become increasingly resistent to conventional extermination methods.  Our free in-home inspection will help identify any potential dangers.”  He punched the word “free,” hoping it would make the woman more receptive, then added an improvised comment:  “Have you heard any unusual noises recently?  I noticed a damaged window screen outside, which could have allowed pests to enter your lovely home.”

“I might have opened the door to one of them a few minutes ago.”

Ouch.   If William saw other parts of the house, he’d have more details to discuss with her…but Mrs. Finley didn’t seem inclined to allow the free inspection.   He had one final trick, which he prefaced with an awkward grimace and a forearm cradled over his stomach.  “Do you mind if I use your bathroom?”

The request was tough for anyone to deny.  Mrs. Finley rolled her eyes, then offered directions:  “Way you came in, and straight back through the kitchen.  Turn to the left, after a stack of boxes.”

“I’ll find my way,” William said.

Easier said than done.  He lost count after the tenth stack of boxes.




William found himself at the bottom of a stairway.  Fortunately, he’d brought a flashlight — essential in these recent days of power outages — and he aimed the beam upward

The stairs were carpeted in the same flat-worn dark green of the living room floor.  Very little of the carpet was visible here, however:  on either side of the lowest step were waist-high stacks of newspapers and junk mail, with a thin space cleared up the middle — barely room for a single person to pass.  The pattern continued with separate stacks on each step, all the way to the landing half-way between the floors.  The cleared space got tighter at the top, an artistic vanishing point that made the distance seem farther than it actually was.  William decided to test the climb.

He was a combination mountain explorer and archeologist:  each step brought him into higher, thinner air, and carried him back in time.  The papers and receipts on the lowest step were fairly current; part-way up, dates beneath layers of dust slipped into the previous millennium.  He found a copy of Good Life Magazine, which ceased publication in 1988.  At one moment, the uneven walls of paper and junk gave him vertigo.  He reached out to steady himself, the flashlight beam wavering.  A pile of newspapers shifted under his hand, and a musty odor rose with a smoke of dust.

After the threat of gagging passed, he climbed more cautiously to the landing, where the steps continued upward at a different angle.

Except, that passage was blocked.  A similar arrangement of papers had failed to maintain its shape, with the top stacks toppling over and a piece-meal domino effect pushing more pages and junk to the bottom.  He could see the second floor, but there wasn’t a clear path to get there.  It was the old joke about the guy who literally painted himself into a corner:  Mrs. Finley had papered herself into the downstairs rooms.

The smell was worse here — mold and dust and spoiled food; sweat and unwashed clothes and rose-scented perfume.  God knows what other garbage lay festering upstairs.  “Jesus,” he said out loud.

Full-blown hoarding behavior, and it had clearly been going on for many years.  Mrs. Finley was already living in a disaster area — a breeding ground for a full variety of household pests.

He thought about whiskered mammals with sharp teeth; insect legs and fat, segmented bodies; forked tongues and red flashing eyes.  He thought of radioactive fallout soaking into the horrible vermin, transforming them into something even more hideous.

William heard a snap followed by a hiss.  He stood completely still.

Clouds of dust sputtered from the ceiling and rose from moldy stacks of newspaper, and William found himself gagging again.

This job was too big for him.  He didn’t have enough traps or pesticide canisters in the office.

Mrs. Finley didn’t need an exterminator, she needed a bulldozer.




[…continued in December 16 entry…]

December 14

The Exterminator’s Visit (Part 1)


William pressed the doorbell, a false-ivory button that had aged to the color of a coffee-stained tooth, but when he didn’t hear an electronic chime from inside he rapped his knuckles against the door.  While he waited, William had plenty of time to study the condition of the housefront.  In the door panels, vertical scratches of the original wood were visible beneath peeling curls of dull black paint.  The door knob was rusted; an obsolete mail slot near the bottom of the door was held shut with a piece of duct tape.  The brick facing fared better, though wooden window frames were chipped, and each of the screens had holes large enough to invite the very visitors that screens intended to keep out.  As evidence, the near window had a small graveyard of flies and moths on the ledge between the screen and the glass.  Another window had one panel patched with masking tape and cardboard.

“Be right there.”  Although muffled by the door and distance, the old woman’s voice was surprisingly loud.  He waited as the slow scuffle of feet got closer, then stopped.  William posed for the spy-hole.

“You saw the ‘No Soliciting’ sign?”  The voice was even louder; loose curls of paint vibrated from the sound waves.

In fact, there wasn’t a sign.  Perhaps a wind gust had blown it off the door, carried it along with the other trash that littered the mostly emptied neighborhood.  “I’m not a salesman,” he assured her.  “I’m an exterminator.”

More of a grunt than an answer, then a long pause before the door opened.  As he stepped inside the woman kept her back to him, already returning to wherever she’d been when he rang the bell.  He shut the door and followed, making sure not to crowd her.

The woman was taller than he expected, about 5’7”, and she walked with a slight limp.  Her slow steps found their way by instinct rather than sight; she sometimes touched a wall or brushed the corner of a stacked box, but mostly she kept her own balance.  Her long gray hair still featured a few streaks of black; strands of it flowed free, while other strands were tucked beneath a faded blue house dress.

“Like Grand Central Station around here,” she said, as if he was the latest of many visitors.

He thought, if anything, her house was like the Station’s Lost-and-Found department, with boxes and papers and clothes in abandoned piles.

William followed her into the next room, and it was like emerging from a tunnel into an open cavern.  The small living room was clean and candle-lit, with minimal furniture:  a sofa and two armchairs, two endtables and a coffee table, one bookshelf, and a television on a wooden stand.  Three bed pillows were stacked neatly at one end of the sofa, with a folded blanket draped over the back cushions.  On the opposite end, a smaller fleece blanket lay in a bundle.  The woman picked this up then spread it across her lap and legs as she sat.

William took the closest chair, which was covered in clear plastic.  It crinkled when he sat down.

“When did you fall?” he asked, referencing her slight limp.

“I’ve never fallen.  I’m very careful.”

“Of course.”  William reached inside the front pocket of his suitcoat and pulled out a sealed letter.  He turned the envelope so she could see the name printed on the front.  “You’re Mrs. Ethel Finley, correct?”

She made no movement to take the letter.  “I know what this visit is really about,” she said.  “I’ll die first.  I’ll die before I let you take me away.”




[…continued in December 15 entry….]

December 13

Apocalypse the 13th

[eighth in a series of 13-word micro fiction stories, for the 13th day of the month!]


Born this day in 1962, Norman Prentiss, author and daily destroyer of worlds.

December 12

Gingerbread House Day


One year, as part of holiday preparations, your parents bought you and your brother a Gingerbread House Kit.  The box seemed especially large to your young eyes.   A colorful photo on the lid depicted a professionally completed structure, mounted on a beautiful tabletop snowscape.

It looked like a real house, but better because it was decorated with icing and chocolate and gumdrops.

When you opened the box, the gingerbread sections of the house were all in one large compartment, with other compartments containing various candied decorations, and two large tubes of “snow” icing.  Before you even got started with the kit, your eager brother lifted up the large flat section representing the front of the house, and he accidently snapped the cookie in half.

Your dad came to the rescue, avoiding too much pre-Christmas drama, by suggesting that the snow icing could be used to hold the broken pieces together.  It wasn’t the most cosmetic solution — similar to his makeshift repairs to the family home, painting over flaws rather than fixing structural damage beneath — but at least he kept your brother from crying.

Making the gingerbread house was fun.  Dad kept his distance and you supervised, giving your brother occasional tasks to help him feel included.  Open that package of spearmint rings and spread them out on the table.  Or, Why don’t you put some jelly beans over this line of icing?

The biggest challenge, though, was to keep your brother from eating the candy.  He loved gumdrops and red-hots and peppermint sticks, and he wanted to sample items whenever he opened a plastic-sealed package.

Maybe you can have any bits of candy we don’t use in making the house…

But the kit-makers hadn’t included any extra candy.  You needed every colorful, sugary treat to make your finished gingerbread house look like the one on the box cover – with an extra, jagged line of white icing from the chimney, through an upstairs window, and beside the front door.

For your brother, the exercise provided a good lesson in restraint.  This candy wasn’t supposed to satisfy his greedy sweet tooth.  It served a higher purpose, adding holiday cheer for the whole family to appreciate.

Mom and Dad gave the gingerbread house a featured spot, placing it on a corner table in the dining room.  Sometimes your brother would ask, Can we eat it? And somebody else would reply, No, that’s just for decoration.

The gingerbread house had a slight lean to the left, but all the candy lined up perfectly along the roof-line and around windows.  With the icing tubes, you’d made realistic patches of snow and added icicles along each overhang.  It looked great.  And delicious.

A few nights later, you started thinking about the candy and the cookie pieces.  They were going to get stale, out in the open air like that.  It was for decoration, of course.  Nobody eats a house.  But it was a shame that all that sweet candy would go to waste.

At first it was only going to be one gumdrop.  While your brother and parents slept, you snuck down into the dining room and peeled a green drop from the back of the house, where nobody would notice it went missing.  It was mint-flavored, instead of lime, and it wasn’t as flavorful as the name-brand jelly candies you bought at the Six-Twelve.  You quickly overcame your disappointment, however, and pulled an orange one off the back of the house, popped it in your mouth.

Then a peppermint ball, and a few jelly beans from the roof.  You rearranged the remaining beans to disguise the theft, then slinked quietly back to your bedroom.

Each night, you stole and ate more candy from the gingerbread house.  To help cover your tracks, you mixed your own icing of confectioner’s sugar and water, “touching up” the places where you’d removed a gumball or red hot.  Candy decorations disappeared even from the front of the house, and new “icicles” appeared in their place.

During dinner, clear evidence of your crime confronted you:  that house in the corner, less colorful each day, its decorations fading or falling down as if its imaginary gingerbread owners no longer cared.

Nobody else in your family seemed to notice.

One night, you pressed too hard on a redistributed spearmint ring.  The house broke down the middle, along the previously repaired split.  Your improvised icing wasn’t strong enough to fix the damage, but you did your best, balancing the pieces like a perilous house of cards.  Before you snuck back to bed, you stole one last jelly bean.

The next morning, the house was gone.  You parents never said a word about it.

You’ve thought about that gingerbread house a lot.  Your best explanation is that Mom or Dad brushed against the display, then assumed their own clumsiness caused the structure to crumble. They threw it away, and decided not to upset you with the news.

You’ve thought about that gingerbread house a lot, because your parents are no longer here to ask them about it.  Or your brother, either.  And the actual house, the childhood home that you still live in — the building your dad repaired with paint or duct tape, doing the best he could — the actual house has started to crumble, too, from the violent winds and the lightning and the debris that fell from the sky.

Also, you suspect that looters have visited while you slept, stealing away bricks or breaking off sections of wood paneling.  It feels like the home itself has gone stale, and what remains of the walls seem to crack at random intervals, making a sound like the crunch of a greedy child biting into bits of forbidden candy.


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