Norman Prentiss

Excerpts from The Apocalypse-a-Day Desk Calendar

Lava Scape

May 15

International Conscientious Objectors Day

 

When Nicholas was a young lad, he joined the afterschool band for a short while.  An instrument was assigned to him based on his limited musical skill:  the triangle.

Bassoon and trumpet and drum kids would practice outside club hours, losing precious sandlot and television time to find proper notes and beats, in endless repetitive patterns.  Nicholas played kickball and watched shows like Lucy and Car 54 instead of practicing, and he felt lucky that the little dings of the triangle were so simple to produce within the band’s limited repertoire.

After a while, however, the lack of challenge began to bother him.  Once the limited pleasures of “Sugar Sugar” and “Ba-Ba-Barbara Ann” were exhausted, Nicholas decided to hang up his triangle for good.

The club leader wasn’t happy about his decision to quit the band elective.  She looked down her nose at him, said that “Every part of an orchestra was important,” and argued that, “If everybody thought like you did, Nicholas, we’d no longer have music.”

That last comment smarted a bit.  Everybody liked music, including Nicholas.  He just didn’t want to ding his way through the same five songs for weeks on end.

Nicholas remembered his band teacher’s comment years later, when it was time to sign up for the draft.  He’d decided to register as a “conscientious objector.”  To support his new-found philosophy, he marched in protest rallies.  Nicholas held up wooden signs and repeated rhythmic chants about love and peace.

His father didn’t approve, saying “conscientious objector” was another word for coward. “If everybody thought like you did, Nicholas, we wouldn’t have any more wars.”

Wasn’t that a good thing?  For Nicholas, the idea of a “beneficial war” was an oxymoron.  But he still felt guilty for disappointing his father.

That was a long time ago.  His father has been dead for many years, and Nicholas has outlived most of his friends.  The Wars took them: the one called III, followed closely by the one called Ultra.

It didn’t matter who objected.  People fought, countries fought, until there was nothing left to fight over.  Now the wars have ended, and music has ended, too — replaced by chants about love and peace, with nobody around to heed the words.

May 14

Mother’s Day

 

The woman is you, or someone you love. Society’s last hope, on a hospital gurney.

A pregnant belly swells beneath a sterilized sheet. Childbirth is a miracle, but never so much as it is now. For eighteen years, after the radiation bombs, no child has been carried to term. Most died in the first trimester; a few lasted into the fourth or fifth month, and when they died they took their mothers with them.

You know this pregnancy will be different. It is worth the risk.

It has to be.

A bump pushes up the sheet, the triangle of a small elbow gliding like a shark fin across the belly’s circumference.

You scream, and it’s the healthy scream of joy and determination that sounded in all delivery rooms in days long past. Your child is alive. You shout encouragement to young Adam or to little Joy. Whether you are the woman or her spouse, in this moment you are one, experiencing the agony and bliss of bringing new life into this too-barren world.

The last child to be born on Earth howls as it pushes its way from the womb. It is a monster.

 

 

May 13

Apocalypse the 13th

[first in a series of 13-word micro fiction stories, to mark the 13th day of the month!]

 

The comatose billionaire had the world at his fingertips. His fingertips wouldn’t move.

May 12

International Nurses Day

 

You’re convinced the nurses have been lying to you.

Part of your suspicion may be due to the pain medications, and your exhaustion after surgery.  But even in your drowsy state, it’s clear to you that the staff is acting strange.

The lights in the room are kept dim, and the blinds are closed.  Without your watch, which is in a drawer you can’t reach from the bed, you can only guess at the time of day.  The televisions are turned off, so you miss that feedback, too.

If you could only hear what the nurses are whispering about, when they’re right outside the room.

While you were fading in and out of sleep, you thought you heard a few troubling words:  “serious”…”tragic”…”unexpected”…

At one point, you dreamed you heard a full sentence:  “In the patient’s condition, it would be a mistake to tell him.”

“Oh, I thought you’d be sleeping.”  Nurse Gary has walked in to check your vitals.  He always seems surprised to find you awake, which makes you guess that he’s part of the night shift.

And, that he deliberately hopes to avoid questions from an alert patient.

“My family should be visiting,” you say, then attempt an awkward joke:  “After all, there’s the ones who talked me into getting the surgery.”

“Maybe tomorrow.”  Gary avoids eye contact, but perhaps he’s checking the flow from the I-V line, or the numbers on the heart monitor.

“Can you tell me…”  You intend to sound pathetic, to earn the nurse’s sympathy, but your weak voice sounds almost too convincing.  “Can you just tell me how the surgery went?  Were there complications…?”

He adjusts the adhesive, checks the site of the needle stick.  “We’re not permitted to share medical information.  You’ll need to wait for the doctor.”

“When will that be?  I’ve been here for…”  Your voice trails off, since you don’t know how many days.  All your life, you’ve been scared of hospitals, and now it seems your worst fears have come true.  You feel so weak; your heart thumps your chest in an irregular beat.  It’s beginning to seem more obvious that there were complications from your supposedly routine surgery.  You’ve got an untreatable infection.  The surgeons broke something while they worked inside you, or pieces didn’t fit back together they way they’d hoped.  Like car mechanics, they fixed one simple problem, then found three major ones you never asked them about.

As scared as you are, you feel like you need to be certain.  Perhaps you can trick the nurse, get him to admit the truth.  “I already know,” you say.  “I overheard two other nurses talking.”

Gary sighs, then finally makes eye contact.  “I’ll get in a lot of trouble.  But since you already know…”  He glances towards the hallway, leans closer to whisper in your ear.

Your heart thumps heavy, and your own nervous breathing seems so loud that you’re afraid you won’t hear what the nurse says.

You’re also afraid you will hear it.

“The surgery went fine,” the nurse says in a conspirator’s whisper.  “We were told to keep you under observation, just in case.  But we don’t know what to do from here.  Most of the doctors died in the attack you heard us talking about.  The one that likely killed your family, too, like so many others around the wor — “  Then, in a louder voice, almost accusing, directed at you and also calling for help from the dim hallway:  “Hey, your heart rate’s spiking, you’re shaking in the — I thought you knew!  He told me he already knew!”

 

[presented with thanks to the nurses and other hospital staff who have all been very kind and truthful to me over the years.]

May 11

1927 — Formation of The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences

 

They’re filming a movie outside your office.

This isn’t as rare an occurrence as people might expect.  Although many productions shoot in New York and California, to take advantage of available resources and actors, your city has a good relationship with low-budget studios.  The government here offers significant tax breaks to attract filmmakers to the area.

Some days, as you’re driving to work, access to major streets might be blocked with orange cones or yellow police tape, to indicate a scene in progress.  More than once, you’ve had to park a few blocks away, and walk the remaining distance to work.

A huge inconvenience.  But a couple times, you’ve spotted minor celebrities in the Double Diner:  the crazy neighbor from a sitcom you never watched; the actor who played Jesse on the first season of Family Side, before he got replaced.

And the other side benefit, from your seventh-floor, windowed office:  a bird’s eye view of some of the action.

Lots of police cars clustered below, lights flashing and sirens wailing.  The studio must have brought some of their own vehicles, but probably borrowed some local Crown Vics to fill out the group.

They’re staging some pretty dramatic footage, from what you can see.  A few cars crash through the police blockade, followed by a small explosion.  You hope the crew got a permit for the pyrotechnics.

One of the stuntmen puts on a pretty convincing display of being injured, staggering out of the car, blood dripping from his wounds.

Then another car comes crashing through, actually hitting a fire hydrant and sending a spray of water into the air.  A pretty cliché stunt, actually…but it looks like they damaged an actual hydrant.

Tax breaks or not, the filmmakers were going to have to pay for that.

You always try to figure out what kind of movie they’re making.  This one, you’re certain, isn’t the type likely to win an Academy Award.  No coffee shop love story, or light comedy about mistaken identity.  This is an attempt at a summer blockbuster:  maybe a quick rip-off of the latest sci-fi or disaster flick.

The next stunt gag confirms your guess, as a large metal contraption hovers into view.  It’s a pretty effective prop, and the actors and stunt people react accordingly.  Most of them scramble for cover behind cars, but several of the “police officers” point guns at the massive ship, shoot blanks, and the tech guys make sparks fly off the metal hull.

You would have thought they’d add the bullet-hit effects afterwards with CGI, but whatever.  Honestly, the whole ship should be a computer added effect — this one looks kind of fake, the way it’s hovering there in the middle of the street.

The frame of your window helps you imagine the scene as it might look on a movie screen.  Something tells you this is the biggest-budget production to visit your city.

Strangest thing, though.  The big camera cranes don’t seem to be present, like usual.  Maybe they’re all filming this on their phones, for one of those shaky-cam false documentaries.  Or maybe this is a practice run, and they’ll wait and film the “real” take after they’ve worked out the logistics.

Another car crash and small explosion, with the muffled sound effects audible through your closed window.  It’s really getting kind of good.  They’ve started a weird kind of laser show from the spaceship prop, and more of the cars and storefronts are exploding, with several of the actors falling down to play dead.

You’re not even sure how they’re doing all these stunts.  Movie magic is the only explanation you can come up with.  You call out to other people in your company, hoping they’re similarly standing wide-eyed at their own nearby windows.  You want to make sure they’re not missing anything.

Nobody answers.

Maybe they’ve all gone downstairs to get a closer look at the action.

May 10

1975 — Debut of Sony Betamax videocassette recorder (VCR)

 

Howard slides back a wooden panel to reveal what would be a walk-in clothes closet in other people’s homes.

It’s still a closet, but not for clothes. He’s had special shelves built, to maximage storage of collected films by his favorite directors. The oldest films are by Hitchcock; the most recent are from genre favorites such as Lucas and Spielberg, Cronenberg and Carpenter and Craven.

He even has a shelf of low-budget favorites, heavily represented by Roger Corman, but with a small row of rare films by Bud “Budget” Preston.

The Preston films are only in Betamax format. Although a cult favorite, that director’s output was never released in the popular VHS format, was considered too artless to be preserved on videodisc, and was largely forgotten by the advent of DVD players.

Most other film exist here in multiple formats, some boxes sealed in plastic, others open or with price stickers or “used” labels obscuring sections of cover art.

You realize you’re supposed to be impressed, but you’re mostly overwhelmed. Howard calls your attention to a prominent, central shelf, clearly intended to showcase the most valued items in his collection.

He pulls out a sealed clamshell box. The artwork on the cover is instantly recognizable: it’s the most influential genre film of the past forty years. “This was the initial release, in Japan,” Howard informs you. “They used the poster for the American release, but the recording’s supposed to have a few alternate takes that were only screened in Japan…for obvious reasons.”

You don’t know what these obvious reasons are, but you’re not interested enough to ask. Frankly, you’re distracted by how many copies Howard owns of this single film: not just a dozen, but several dozen, spilling from one shelf to the row beneath. Versions in different languages, in different formats, with different special features.

But in each instance, it’s all the same movie, with slight variations. A new mini-documentary; a “special remastered version” with a slight, incremental improvement in picture or sound quality.

“I wonder,” you say, trying your best to seem impressed. “I wonder what it was like to be a collector in our parents’ day. Back then, you could pick one singer or one record label, and you could own everything in that category. That’s impossible now: the companies are always ready to introduce a new iteration, to get you to buy the same product, all over again.”

You put the thirty-seventh copy of the movie back on the shelf, sliding it between the 30th anniversary release and a dual-layer re-edited version.

Howard has remained silent for a while, and you’re afraid you’ve insulted him. Instead, as you realize when he starts to respond, he’s been thinking over what to say. “I started as that kind of collector. I was a Betamax completist, basically buying every genre movie as it came out in that format. Everybody thought that was the format that would ‘win,’ since those tapes were more compact. When the larger VHS format took over the market share, and they stopped producing Betamax tapes, I was devastated. I felt abandoned. Left behind. Like everything owned was worthless.”

His words offer more of a heartfelt confession than you expected. Sometimes people reveal too much about themselves, and it only makes you sad.

“Maybe that’s why I keep buying things again in the new format,” Howard continued. “I’m afraid to lose again. I’m stocking up on my movies, the same way somebody stores food and water in case the zombie apocalypse happens.”

The closet, with all its colorful boxes of tapes and discs, starts to seem claustrophobic. You want to leave. Because you’ve realized there’s something Howard doesn’t know.

“I’ve got more movies than this,” Howard says. “Tons more. In the basement, and in an air-controlled storage unit I rent each month.”

He really doesn’t know. You don’t want to be the one to tell him. But you’re his friend. He should hear it from you.

“Howie, this is a really nice collection. I know you’re really proud of it. But I guess you haven’t heard the latest. I read online that they’ve announced a new archive format. All the companies are switching to it. I’m so sorry. Every other format is going to be pretty much obsolete in a few months. You’re going to have to start all over again.”

 

 

May 9

The Last Medium (Part 2)

[…continued from May 8 entry…]

With your eyes closed, you try to imagine the people seated around you at the seance table. You’ve retained a mental picture of the leader on your right and the young woman to the left.

The others, you’d only spoken with briefly, and they hadn’t made much of an impression: a stick figured gentleman dressed in a jogging outfit; a teenage boy as sullen as all teenage boys, proving some things don’t change even after the world ends; a middle aged woman with thinning hair and librarian glasses.

Was there another person you were forgetting? Did you have them in the correct seating order? You were tempted to confirm your guess by opening your eyes.

It had been your strategy, in former seance-busting days, to peer through slitted eyes, catch the medium’s slight of hand, the trick of wires or a black-cloathed assistant making an object “float,” the hidden projector across the room casting a ghostly image on a screen of smoke.

This time, you had decided to follow the rules.

“All of you,” the medium said. “I want you all to imagine another presence in the room. Open your minds. Invite it in.”

Now was usually the time when a chill crept into the room — courtesy of a quick change in air conditioning. Instead, you feel a bit warm. Perhaps it’s simply heat from the candles on the table.

You hear a sudden rush of wind, a sound like the striking of a match.

A dozen matches. A hundred.

A violent warmth hit your face, feeling like it singed your eyebrows, but you kept your eyes shut tight. You were afraid if you opened them, they would boil in their sockets.

You squeeze at the clasped hands, wanting human contact. Earlier, the older woman’s skin had seemed unnaturally soft, the younger woman’s dry and sweaty. Now each of the hands feels harsh and rigid. Skeletal.

The mental picture of your seance companions transforms. Their hair has burned off the tops of their heads. Their flesh has begun to boil and then melt like candle wax.

She’d actually done it. You’d been skeptical all your life, but now realized that this medium had raised an actual ghost — not the departed spirits of the victims, but the ghost of a nuclear explosion.

You wonder what terrible voice this entity would speak in.

“Lar’ ghtu Zl’yth.”

The voice was deep. It struggled, inarticulate, like a woman being strangled.

“Wlhy’ kshu’gg.”

No real syllables, but there was enough there to help you recognize the medium’s voice. Disguised, in that common trick of charlatans: a few more lines of nonsense, and then she would shift into English. This was the usual “possession” by the spirit guide.  All an act.  Nothing to be afraid of.

You imagined the people at the table again, in their normal clothes, their hair back in place, flesh unmelted.

“Someone wants to speak with us,” the medium said. “Identify youself, spirit.”

Yes, you were back in familiar territory now: Sitting in the dark with a fraud, and her weak-minded followers.

“Please,” the older woman said. “Speak to us. Speak through me.”

Silence.

Then, the medium began to cry. From the other side, you felt the young woman’s hand go limp in yours, and heard more sobbing from around the table.

You opened your eyes.

Everything was as you remembered it. This sad group of survivors, gathered around a round table.

But something was missing.

An emptiness.

“You feel it, don’t you.” The medium looked directly at you, her eyes still wet with tears. “We broke through. We broke through to the spirit world.”

You wondered why she’d turn to the skeptic, of all people in the room.

“I don’t feel anything,” you responded.

But that wasn’t quite true. You had some kind of mystical experience, you are certain. Something authentic. You just didn’t know what it could mean.

“That’s correct,” the medium said. “You don’t feel anything. That’s the way you’ve always been. No sense of a world beyond. But you were wrong before. Now you’re right.”

An awful realization began to dawn.

“We broke through,” she said. “When we destroyed our world, we destroyed the next. There’s nothing. Nothing.”

Her circle of followers continued to weep. You decided to join them.

 

 

May 8

White Lotus Day

 

The remaining few held hands around a circular table. “Open your minds,” the leader said, and her followers nodded with total seriousness. They knew how she expected them to behave, and followed suit.

That’s how these kinds of groups operated. Not really with open minds, but with strangely unified ones. Malleable. Succeptible.

You had made it a point to study such groups, for a while, during your amateur magician phase. You knew enough about trickery to spot the frauds — when they threw a bit of glow putty in the dark and called it ectoplasm, when they cracked a toe muscle and attribuited the sound to a ghost knocking from the other side. And the performance moments, when the leader would assume the deep or accented voice of a spirit guide, or of someone who had “crossed over” but would stop by to offer simplistic answers to predictable questions.

Well, they were all frauds, weren’t they? As an intellectual exercise, it ended up being too easy to unmask each deception. You got bored with the project, and abandoned it.

But maybe now, considering that the world had pretty much ended, the idea of communicating with the dearly departed had renewed appeal.

Because there were so many of them. The dead were pretty much all we had left to talk to.

“There is a skeptic among us.” The group’s leader, an elderly woman dressed in loose, black clothing, spoke as if she addressed a full auditorium instead of six other people in a candlelit sitting room.

If volume was so crucial, you often wondered, why not use a bullhorn to call the spirits?

“Open your mind, unbeliever.” The woman lifted one hand to break the circle, indicating the space to her left. “Sit. Join us. Clasp hands.”

Why not? This has happened to you before: it’s one way a leader or medium expresses confidence. As if to say, the visitor’s disbelief won’t weaken the ceremony…and perhaps it’s your skepticism that will weaken, eh?

You moved an extra chair towards the table, sat and took the leader’s hand, then offered a silent greeting to the younger woman on your other side. The leader was at least twice this woman’s age, but the medium’s hand seemed softer to the touch. The skin on the young woman’s hand felt dry, despite the layer of nervous sweat on her palm.

“Now, close your eyes,” the medium said. “Be receptive to the room. To the world outside this room. Consider what mankind has done to this world, and how that must have affected the other realm.”

That was the woman’s pitch earlier in the day. She insisted you’d learn that a seance was more effective in recent days. The violence of the apocalypse had one benefit, she explained: it had thinned the barrier between this world and the next.

An interesting theory. It seemed much more likely, however, that this woman continued the long tradition of opportunistic tricksters, preying on the vulnerable.

But okay, you could play along. Keep an open mind for a while, see what happened.

You closed your eyes.

[…continued tomorrow…]

May 7

The Last Literature Professor on Earth

 

“I gave commands; Then all smiles
stopped together…”
–from Robert Browning, “My Last Duchess”

 

When’s the first time you laughed, after a family member fell ill? When’s the first time you told a joke after a tragic accident occured in your community?

Oh, I see your point, Traci. It depends on a lot of different factors. How serious the illness is. How close you are to the the family member. Even the age of the person, and how rich or full their life has been before the illness.

And in the case of an accident, we should consider (if I follow your logic) how many people were hurt or died in the car crash, the bus crash, for example. How large the building burned, how wide the blast radius of the explosion.

Still…at some point, you will smile again, correct? You will laugh or tell a joke.
Is that what we’re agreeing to?

Yes, Jeffrey. You’re right to say that laughter is an important part of life. Our smiles make us human.

But if you’ll pardon me for introducing a bit of math into our literary discussion…Some multiplication.

Let’s say it’s not just one family member or friend who’s fallen ill. Let’s say it’s all of them. And your closest friends, too.

And let’s say it’s not just an handful of strangers in our hypothetical car crash. Let’s make it an explosion that destroys an entire town. Multiple cities, even.
When do the smiles come back, now?

I see you nodding, Brook, but Bobby had his hand up earlier.

You’re agreeing with Jeffrey, aren’t you, Bobby? We’d still stay sad, for a longer duration, certainly, but we’d never forget how to smile. Is that right?

Now, let’s see what happens when we turn back to our poem, “My Last Duchess” by Robert Browning. Browning, by the way, was born in England on this day in 1812 — an interesting fact, but not the kind of question I’d put on your final exam.

As we’d said, the narrator of Browning’s poem, the Duke of Ferrara, describes his previous wife, and her good-natured habit of smiling at everyone and everything. He’s a jealous, self-important man, and he’s agitated that his wife, who became a duchess when she married into his family, doesn’t reserve an extra smile for her husband. His irritation grows, until (as Browning has him say), “I gave commands; Then all smiles / Stopped together.”

What were the commands about? What must have happened to his wife, to stop her from smiling?

Oh, a lot of hands this time. I think the light bulb has gone on.

Correct, Sherry. The narrator has given orders to have his wife executed. Now, don’t object Jeffrey — or you either, Bobby. You argued earlier that smiles and laughter were a necessary part of life. There’s only one way to stop a person from smiling.

That, or make an illness so powerful it touches everyone; make a tragedy so vast that it devastates every city in the world.

You see where I’m going with this? I’m thinking maybe we all smiled too much. That some angry God, feeling ignored or unappreciated like the Duke in Browning’s poem, decided to teach us a lesson.

That’s my theory about how to interpret recent events. It’s a way to explain why so many people have died, so many buildings have crumbled.

Why I’m standing in a hollowed out classroom, stern faced, lecturing to a collection of empty desks with sad memories of the vibrant students who used to sit in them.

No, Lonnie. Since that’s just a personal theory, I won’t put it on the exam.

 

 

May 6

[continued from May 5 entry…]

 

Something was wrong with the baby.

Of course, that’s why the midwife was here. Encouragement, advice, experience. It was Nikki’s first baby, but the midwife had delivered hundreds. Thousands, maybe, judging from the woman’s age.

No need to worry, right?

“It shouldn’t hurt this much,” Nikki said. “Should it?”

“Every pregnancy is different.” The midwife’s voice seemed to emerge from the ground. The angle of Nikki’s body, the mound of her stomach and the spread of her legs, all conspired to block the woman from view. “The herbs I put in your tea should relax you.”

She didn’t feel relaxed at all. Perhaps the midwife was lying to comfort her, and the woman knew all along the pregnancy was doomed. Nikki wished she could see the midwife’s face, to get a better sense of how things were really going.

Her insides seemed to stretch in agonizing directions, with sharp pains as if the baby was trying to claw its way out of her. The child was positioned the wrong way, it was too large… They needed a hospital, a maternity ward with a full staff of specialists.

Then a thought came into Nikki’s head that she’d been trying to fend off. What if the baby wasn’t the problem? What if there was something wrong with the midwife?

Susannah had shown up at her house, out of nowhere. The exact person she needed, to help during the final, frightening months of her pregnancy. A little too much of a coincidence, perhaps?

“Tell me what you’re doing,” Nikki said. She tried to shift her body, to move one leg aside to better observe the midwife’s actions.

“Hold still.” Her hands grabbed Nikki’s leg and returned it to its previous position. “I’m not doing anything. We have to wait until the baby is ready.”
The midwife’s grip was surprisingly strong. Susannah definitely wasn’t a frail older woman: it felt like she could twist her wrists in opposite directions and snap Nikki’s leg in two.

She could do the same to an infant.

Nikki struggled in the improvised bed of pillows, shifting her elbows and propping her head higher. She still couldn’t gain an unobstructed view of the midwife, but the woman’s satchel of medical tools was slightly to the left.

Nikki moved her other leg, kicking the satchel over in a twitchy moment that she hoped would look like an accident. Some of the satchel’s contents spilled out and rolled across the carpet.

Not tools or medicine, but cans of food. A stash of provisions the midwife had stolen from Nikki’s cabinets.

“I trusted you.” Nikki tried to scream, but the birthing pains had sapped her energy. She felt like she was in a fog. “I brought you into my home. Fed you, gave you a place to sleep.” Nikki wondered what kind of drugs the woman had actually placed into her drink.

“You would have done that for anybody, if you’d been a better person.” Susannah stood up now, abandoning all pretense of midwifery, and began gathering the cans of food. “This will all be mine now.”

The woman looked like a stranger — the kind of crazed stranger Nikki had deliberately shut her house against, to save her own life and the life of her child.

Nikki’s vision grew more blurry.

“I don’t know what I’m doing,” the woman said. “I’m no midwife. I needed food, and I remembered the pregnant woman who lived in the house on the hill.”

The woman looked like a hunched-over troll. She moved closer, hovering over her “patient’s” stomach. The baby kicked hard at Nikki’s insides, and the women drew back her leg, preparing to aim adult kicks at the same target.

Nikki’s vision blurred, and went black.

 

#

 

Crying. Crying.

The crying of an infant.

Nikki opened her eyes. She was in her own bed, instead of on the floor in a pile of pillows. Her arms and legs were tied to the bedposts.

No. It only felt that way. Her energy was so drained, she could barely move.

The infant’s cries grew louder. The baby floated through the air and hovered close to the left side of Nikki’s head.

She was too weak to turn her head and look. Too frightened to look.

“It’s a girl,” the evil, false midwife said.

Ever since the world ended, Nikki had a frequent, recurring dream. In the dream, her husband came back home, smiled at her, kissed her. He wasn’t dead, because the wars hadn’t happened, and neither had the fighting and looting and further killings that followed. It was all a bad dream.

Such a terrible thing to wake to the truth.

But this time, maybe the dream was the bad part. Maybe she’d dreamed of a painful pregnancy, of a deceptive midwife, and would wake to a happier world.

Nikki was still too weak to move. “Susannah? Is that really you?”

The baby continued to cry. A blur of pink flesh came close to her face, and Nikki tried to distinguish a healthy infant’s features.

The woman she’d trusted, the woman she’d known as Susannah, spoke again. “Do you still want to name her Hope?”

Nikki tried to trust her, tried not to hear a terrible undertone of irony in the woman’s voice.

 

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