Norman Prentiss

Excerpts from The Apocalypse-a-Day Desk Calendar

Lava Scape

July 7

1930 — death of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

 

“If you’re going to chronicle this moment, as you have with my previous adventures, I suggest you begin now.”

I had been visiting my friend, the Master Detective, when a well-dressed client stepped into the apartment.  Such was a familiar scene in our younger days, when the two of us had roomed together, and I had frequent occasion to marvel at my friend’s uncanny powers of deduction.  In later years, my wife and growing family became a priority for me, and I became less and less involved in his world of crime and intrigue.

On this occasion, however, I confess I felt a happy twinge of nostalgia, as my friend began a familiar series of astonishing observations — before the client had even opened his mouth.

“You’re with the government,” the Detective said.  He waved his hand, dismissing the question before it was asked.  “Obvious from the self-important air with which you carry yourself, and the way you managed to bluster past my housekeeper to interrupt my afternoon.  You’re ready to make demands–to insist on my cooperation gratis, as a service to my country.  Well, we shall see…”

Before the next series of deductions, our visitor’s hand involuntarily shot up to cover his heart, but the obscuring motion was too late.

“That slight bulge beneath the left side of your vest no doubt indicates the presence of a thick envelope stuffed hastily into an inner pocket.  I can see the corner of the envelope peeking out beside your cravat, and previously noted an additional bump that indicated a raised, official seal over the central fold.”

“How…?”  As often happened, the visitor was struck dumb.  Eyes wide, mouth hanging open after the partially worded question.

“You might as well pass the missive to me now.  I know you were expecting my companion to leave the room, but I assure you he may share our confidence.  We have worked together in the past, and his observations have often proved quite useful.”

I swelled with pride at this last comment, since I seldom felt my contributions had been necessary.  Mostly I filled the role of observer, as my friend’s mind unlocked impossible mysteries.

The visitor retrieved the envelope from his inner pocket, and revealed it to be exactly as my friend described.  The embossed wax design looked terribly elaborate — as if its maker hoped the seal would never need to be broken.  “I’m still not sure…”  He trailed off, looking from my friend to me, hesitant to pass the document.

“Oh for heaven’s sake,” my friend said, “you haven’t time for shilly-shallying.  The sweat on your brow and that tremor in your fingertips indicates the situation is urgent.  No matter, since I can already guess the contents of the envelope.”

Our astonished government client passed the materials over, but the Master Detective could not resist another demonstration of his acute intuition.  “I needn’t have asked which branch of the government you represent.  The fact that you didn’t announce it immediately upon entrance, to establish your authority, told me your particular existence is unknown to the general population.  But not to me.”  My friend patted the sealed envelope.  “The blueprints for the weapon are contained within, I’ve no doubt.  You think knowledge of its workings would help me identify who stole it.”

Now the twitching fingers of our guest went perfectly still.  Nervous sweat continued to fall down his brow, and I imagined a heavy drop making an audible noise as it hit the thin frayed carpet that hadn’t been changed since the days I lived there.

“The workings of your infernal machine are irrelevant.  I already know the thief.  And I know when and where he will strike.”  He set the unopened envelope on a chair-side table, then lifted his arms to indicate the room the three of us occupied.  “You could try to outrun it, but I expect you’re likely aware of the blast radius.  I don’t think you stand a chance.”

Our statue, our stoic member of some unspecified, secret government office, then came to life and bolted out of the room, his footsteps trailing down the stairs, and the front door to the building opened and slammed shut behind him.  My friend walked to the window, pulled the curtain aside and with a calm demeanor watched the man run down the street and into the distance.

I stared at the envelope on the table, tempted to pick it up.

“Go ahead,” my friend offered.

But I was sure its contents were exactly as my friend described.  They always were.

“But that story you told him.”  In this moment, I found myself slipping into my usual flustered reaction to my friend’s genius.  “That business about blast radius, and all.  It surely wasn’t true, or you wouldn’t be so casual right now.”

My friend gathered his tobacco and pipe and sparked a light, taking a slow puff.  He crossed the room and lowered himself into his favorite armchair.  “All true, my dear friend.  We haven’t a chance.  No use trying to escape, making running fools out of ourselves as our pompous visitor just did.  We’ll wait, like gentlemen.”

And that’s when he told me, “Though I don’t suppose there will be anyone left to read it…If you’re going to chronicle this moment, as you have with my previous adventures, I suggest you begin now.”

Which is what I’m doing.

 

July 6

National Fried Chicken Day

 

You squeeze the paste out of a tube and onto the edge of your index finger.  The paste is dark brown, like the gelatin that forms around a scoop of canned catfood.  There’s an earthy odor to the mixture as you raise it to your face, and a slight brothy undertone that, rather unconvincingly, suggests chicken stock.

The tube actually has a picture of a chicken on it.  A live one, standing proud in a farmyard, rather than the chickens you’d encountered more frequently:  a beige slab with grill marks, a breaded puck on a roll, or the severed fried segments you identified as wings or thighs or breasts or those strangely weighted drumsticks.

You lick the gelatin, deciding your finger doesn’t taste like chicken.  It’s meat-flavored toothpaste, as terrible as all the other flavors in your survival kit.  The taste isn’t enough to remind you of actual fried pieces from a fast-food bucket, but it’s the best you have.

From your perspective, it’s better than starving.

Your brother can’t stand the tubestuff, so he’s been experimenting with other options.  He made his own fire in the middle of the living room floor, and he found some fatty oils to swirl in a deep, cast iron pan.  The oils popped loudly when he dropped floured pieces of meat into the heated pan.

You wonder what shapes these pieces might have:  if they have wings or noses or tails, if they’re strangely weighted clumps with fingers on one end.  You smell the flour crisping in the oil, the meat and juices rising over the open pan, and you try very hard not to remember the taste of chicken.

July 5

1996 — Birth of Dolly, the first cloned sheep

 

You count the sheep in the fenced field behind the lab.  There are so many of them, and they’ve eaten most of the grass and forbs in their enclosure.  You’re working on gathering other food supplements for them.

The best estimate you can come up with is forty.  The count’s inaccurate, though, since the sheep keep moving.  They all have the exact same markings, so it’s impossible to keep track when one wanders from one clumped mob to another.

Maybe you should just estimate the count at one, and leave it there.  They’re all the same.  They’re all Dolly.

Your assistant wheels up the barrel of hay you’ve borrowed from a nearby farm.  In unison, the wooly white mobs converge at the sight of food, and it’s like a storm cloud blown across the sky in time lapse, a rush of white and gray…with bleating, and hoofbeats that click like the patter of rain.

The sheep all make the same cry, which isn’t the “baah” or “meh” of a typical sheep, but more like the wail of a human infant during teething.  The Dollys make the sound to indicate hunger, but it’s the same sound their original made as she grew sick.

To be honest, they all sound sick to you, all the Dollys, but maybe that’s your reaction to the cloning process — an unnatural birth, an imperfect reproduction that typically magnifies any flaws in the originating animal.

Now they’re pushing to the gated side of the enclosure, and their hooves clack across dried mud where matted grass previously used to provide their meal.  The wheelbarrow of hay won’t be enough for them, but it should be a start.

You gather a large armload of hay and prepare to toss it over the fence.  Impatient hooves continue to clack against the dry ground, and you’re almost worried that they’ll crush each other in their excitement. The wire and wood fence bulges out slightly, and a few Dollys try sticking their noses and mouths through any gaps.  Their eyes look wide and bright…almost bloodshot.

That clacking, still, and there’s something unnatural about it, as if they’re walking on kitchen tile instead of outdoor ground.

A Dolly’s mouth opens at the nearest gap in the fence, and her strange infant bleat blends with the clacking sound.  It seems more like a gargle of gravel.  You look inside her mouth, and notice it’s full of teeth — not in the sheep’s bleeding gums, but loose in the mouth, clacking against each other over a wet red tongue.

You look at the number “31” tattooed inside this animal’s ear, and make a note to pull this one from the flock for further study.

But the gravel-click continues from other Dollys, even as their hooves stand still on the flattened earth.  If number 31 is sick, they’re all sick.  That’s how things go with these clones.

You throw your handful of hay over the fence, and leave your assistant to continue with the rest of the barrow’s contents.

Cloning is an imperfect process, with so many unknown variables.  You’ve been trying to get the lab to shift to other types of experiments — ones with clearer goals to benefit mankind, and better chances of success.

As you race along the paved driveway back to the lab, you start rehearsing the ultimatum you plan to deliver to your colleagues.  Your anger fuels you as you walk, and you realize that you’re grinding your teeth with each step.  A few of your teeth feel loose, as if they’re ready to fall out of your gums.

 

[Author’s Note:  for a previous story inspired by Dolly, written on the date her existence was announced to the world, see the entry for February 22]

July 4

Independence Day (U.S.)

 

When you were much younger, you resented your county’s strict rules about purchasing fireworks. They’d outlawed the larger rockets, fine, and the Roman Candle variations that shot a sequence of small fireballs in the air.  Safety concerns, of course.  There were stories of unsupervised boys setting off rockets in fields, standing too close to the fuse and blowing off their hands, or getting a face full of glorious color that melted their eyes into darkness.

Supposedly there was a student who used to go to your high school, who had a hook for a hand.  The injury might have been caused by an auto accident, or been there since birth, but as July 4 rolled around, the hook was a cautionary tale for any child who considered patronizing the giant fireworks stands in nearby counties with looser regulations.

Your older brother talked about such an excursion.  He and his friends returned with contraband Roman candles, and did exactly what you weren’t supposed to do with them:  at twenty paces, they lit fuses, held them like magic wands, and shot flaming star-bombs at each other.

So yes, there was abuse.  But your county had gone to such an extreme.  You weren’t even allowed to buy sparklers, which were essentially harmless.  The best you could hope for were a few packs of black snakes:  small black cylinders that looked like a broken piece of chalk, made of sugar and baking soda and some slight combustible.  When you set them on the ground, they burned until smoke turned solid, a snaking curl of ash that stretched and writhed along the ground.  Fun for a few times, but hardly a spectacle.  They smelled like gasoline, and the snakes crumbled when you touched them.

In later years, you lived in towns with lax rules.  Local kids bought huge packs of noise-making rockets, and you’d hear them not only on the 4th, but on the weekend leading up, and then leftovers every night thereafter for almost a week.

As a kid, you would probably have been happy with the recent court ruling, declaring fireworks were a form of free expression.  The regulatory laws were struck down in most regions, and the fireworks industry blossomed — not only the large seasonal trailer-stands, but multi-packs sold in local drug stores and groceries, even at the convenience store across the street from your apartment.

Many of the packages had warning labels in different languages.  The English line was hard to read, but you that accompanying instructions would advise about proper precautions.

The previous weekend was surprisingly silent, considering how many rockets had sold in your neighborhood.  You guessed everyone was saving up for the actual day.

Your cat is already hiding in the closet, as if he can sense the noisemaking that will commence after nightfall.

What happens is far more than you, or Frisky, could ever have anticipated.  It sounds like you’re in a warzone.

Flashes of multi-colored light play through the slats in your closed mini-blinds, accompanied by a machine-gun series of pops and bangs.  It’s like the final movement of a professional fireworks display, when they shoot off an incredible number of rockets at the same time, filling the sky with color and smoke and thunderous noise.

But this isn’t a professionally timed display.  You think of your brother and his friends aiming tiny Roman candle stars at each other from a semi-safe distance.  What would happen if rebellious kids had even larger rockets, and aimed them recklessly at each other, at buildings?

Creating a display that lost all site of patriotic celebration, lapsing into relentless chaos.

You pull up the mini-blinds and look outside. Smoke and colors and sparks fill the air, and you can’t even see across the street.

Suddenly, a flaming rocket smashes through the window and falls dormant on the hardwood floor of your living room.  The rocket, and shards of glass, barely missed hitting you.

You worry that the rocket itself will explode.  A slight flicker of light shines through a tear in the large cardboard tube, and you listen for a hiss as flame and powder meet.

Nothing.  A dud, apparently.

Then you look more closely at the fallen cardboard rocket.  A severed hand with two burnt fingers is stuck to the outside of it.

July 3

Dog Days of Summer

 

“…the star which men call Orion’s Hound, and whose beams blaze forth in time of harvest…he yet bodes ill for mortals, for he brings fire and fever in his train…”

— Homer, The Iliad (tr. Samuel Butler)

 

Kirsten used to volunteer with her local animal shelter, helping on weekends with their program to control wild and stray cats.  They would trap the animals, then spay or neuter them before releasing them back into the wild.

They were beautiful animals, like all cats.  But these were unused to human company, and would make terrible pets.  The best anybody could do was help to control their population.

Despite the shelter’s best efforts, it sometimes seemed like an overwhelming problem.  Stray cats roamed the streets of some city neighborhoods, strutting as if they owned the place, knocking over trashcans, hissing at children, heat-howling late into the night.  Kirsten sometimes thought that, if the population kept growing, those cats might actually take over the cities.

She needn’t have worried. A larger animal soon stepped in and took care of the feline population.

The dogs howled louder at night, knocked over more garbage, growled through sharp teeth more menacing than a back-bristled feline hiss.  The dogs were harder to trap, and their numbers seemed to increase more rapidly.  Once they’d eaten most of the stray cats, they hungered for larger game.

They travelled in packs.  Their paws clawed at screen doors, scratched at windows.  They smelled food inside houses, and drool and foam dripped from their mouths.

The weather has grown warm.  Heat lightning crackles through the air, and Kirsten feels feverish and afraid.  She nails boards over windows and doors, trapping herself within the house.  It is too dangerous to go outside.

The Dog Days of Summer have begun.

July 2

World UFO Day

 

The house was quiet. Cory heard the engine of a car along the road outside…turning the corner…its headlights weaving through half-open curtains… throwing shadows across the room, rippling across the wall above his bed.

It was unusual that someone would be driving this time of night. And was this the same pattern that passing headlights typically followed?

As the car drove closer to the front of their house, a strange pulse vibrated with the rumble of the engine. It sounded less like an automobile…more like…

…an imperfect imitation of a car’s engine. A pulsing sound throbbed beneath…some strange combination of a breath and wave-squeal, a heartbeat and radio static…

At this point, the soft glow of headlights should have disappeared at the edge of the window frame, while the car continued down the road.

Instead the lights froze in place. Next, shadows shifted and stretched in another direction. The driver had decided to make a U-turn.

The headlights rose higher in the window frame, as if the car had lifted off the ground.

The engine clicked off, but the lights continued to hover outside the window…more lights than a single car would have. They blinked and flashed in a strange Morse code that was both frightening and hypnotic.

Cory felt a sudden wave of exhaustion, his eyes heavy. Perhaps he was already dreaming. He could pinch himself. Close his eyes, reopen them…and the lights would be gone.

The horizontal row of lights bent and tilted like a carnival ride…they paused in a vertical line.

Large white lights blinked into a purple glow…then red…then the orange of a blazing fire.

Cory closed his eyes tight. Behind his lids, more flashes of color…the blink and pulse of a muted light show.

He put his hands over his face. The bedroom felt warm…

Those lights were not intended to illuminate the path ahead, he realized…they were part of some alien weapon…warming up through pulses and a sequence of colors…then burning a laser beam through the window glass and into his bedroom.

He removed his hands from his face, opened his cowering eyes. The outside lights had disappeared…

If they were ever there to begin with.

The room seemed warm, yes…but that was a flush of shame. He felt like a fool.

The window framed darkness. No engine rumbles or otherworldly pulsations thrummed outside the house.

Breathe. Calm down. Try to get back to sleep.

Cory closed his eyes again, let his head press into his pillow.

He attempted counting sheep. Testing…one…two… The sheep were covered with golden scales, and had tentacles instead of legs. Instead of jumping, they hovered over the fence…

This night would never end…

The bed creaked beneath him as he tossed and turned.

Not the bed…the door to the room, slowly creaking open.

Mom or Dad had heard him cry out, and they were coming to check on him. He turned his head to the doorway, rehearsing a drowsy apology. Must have had a bad dream. I didn’t realize I’d been so loud.

A shadowy figure stood in the hallway. It wasn’t Mom or Dad.

The vaguely humanoid shape stepped into the room. Its arms and legs wiggled as if they had extra joints in them. The head had strange crags and protrusions…like the surface of a rock, and yet…shiny.

Shadowy arms waved limber on strange joints…reaching forward as the shape lumbered closer to Cory. The room was almost completely dark, but small peaks of light flashed off the otherworldly face…like shimmers of sunlight on an agitated lake.

The sunken eyes had a large almond shape…dark and soulless.

In a burst of strength, the alien leapt across the room, arms raised. It crashed against the side of Cory’s bed, then scrambled up and over him.

Shadowy knees hemmed him in on either side. The alien face sparkled. Stiff padded hands gripped his shoulders, pinning him down.

It was too dark. Cory wasn’t able to count the number of fingers on the alien’s hand. In his mind, if the visitor had four fingers and a thumb, it would be closer to human…as if that would make it more likely to be friendly…or able to respond to reason. Cory tried to catch his breath…tried to speak…

One of the alien’s hands immediately clamped over his mouth. The skin had a coarse, rubbery texture…like the dry scales of a dead fish. The alien’s face moved closer to his own…The almond eyes flashed wide…blinking beneath a thready webbing.

The boy lost consciousness…and in other homes across the world, the UFO invasion continued.

 

[Author’s Note:  Today’s entry is a modified excerpt from The Space Visitor, a 9,000 word novelette that’s available for only 99 cents, and which ties into the world of my latest full-length novel, Life in a Haunted House.]

      

July 1

Moving Day (Quebec, Canada)

 

Quebec officials designated July 1 as Moving Day.  The concept dated back to earlier centuries, setting a lease expiration that kept cruel landlords from evicting tenants during colder months.  As the tradition evolved, Moving Day shifted to summer months — after the school year ended, which the entire family to help with packing and lifting boxes; maneuvering a large sofa through tight doorways; taking the entertainment center apart, then reassembling it at the new location.

Professional movers were an option, as well, but because of the increased number of July 1 customers, they charged double or triple rates, and their services needed to be booked well in advance.

An officially sanctioned date wasn’t enough to encourage you to move.  When you were a child, your mother ruled that the family had to move every five years — this practice kept things fresh, she argued, and kept too much junk from accumulating in the same house year after year.  But in your adult years, you’ve always owned too many books and papers, which are cumbersome to pack.  You’re more comfortable within familiar walls, and have grown to like your chosen neighborhood.

Today, you’ve been told you must leave your home.  You packed one suitcase of clothing and toiletries, and a few small mementos.  A small bag of snacks and water bottles is fine, also, but books are too heavy to carry.

It’s more like an evacuation than a move.  You don’t know where you’ll end up, or how long you’ll stay.

The important thing is to keep ahead of the wind currents from the reactor meltdown.  To keep out of the path of the transformed mutants as they travel southward, bringing their diseases…and their hunger.

Keep moving, until there’s nowhere left to go.

Every day is Moving Day.

June 30

Halfway There

 

You’ve had bad years before, but never like this.

There was that year after graduation, when you took a life-long job that somehow ended before the month was out.  That same year, you lost Frisky to feline leukemia, and your grandmother got really sick.

At one point you thought, at least things can’t get worse.

Then there was that other year, with a hurtful break-up on Valentine’s Day, and the routine doctor visit that put you in the hospital for most of April.

This is the worst year ever, you thought at the end of June.  At least it’s half over.

It’s natural to feel that bad luck spreads itself in portions, respecting the calendar: a terrible year is followed by one that brings riches and happiness;  and the worst year, bad as it is, will eventually run out of days.

You want to apply that logic to the current year — the year of the apocalypse.  After floods and fires and wars, after all the buildings have crumbled, after food and drink grew scarce and the few survivors turned on each other…you tell yourself, things can’t possibly get worse.

We’ve reached the halfway point.  The world must be running out of tragedies.

June 29

The Hell Of Food That Looks Like Other Food (Part 2)

[…continued from June 28 entry…]

 

“Eat your sandwich,” her mother said.

As far as Marcie was concerned, it wasn’t a sandwich.  Instead of bread, the layers outside were made from a strange puffed substance that tasted like paper.  A smear of brown paste around the edges simulated the crust.

And the meat inside was…who could tell?  At her school cafeteria, back when there was a school, Marcie and her friends used to joke about so-called mystery meat on the lunch trays.  All of the brown chunks would taste the same — like chicken, they’d say.  Salt and gravy and a slight gristle.  Although they never knew what it was, even after consulting the menu taped above the sneeze guard… they never doubted that it was meat of some kind.

She couldn’t say the same about the flat, stiff square between the fake bread slices.  It looked like ham, it really did…but when she bit into it, she noticed a purple-gray center to the oddly textured foodstuff.  Her best guess was some kind of eggplant paste, mashed flat — perhaps mixed with purple cabbage — then painted over with a pink glaze.

Marcie dropped the “sandwich” onto her plate, disturbing the brown triangles that simulated tortilla chips.  “Why do we have to eat this stuff?  It’s terrible.”

“Be quiet.”  Her mother looked over her shoulder into the next room…the kitchen where Randall Haines gathered food items together, transforming them with pastes and dyes…continuing his strange attention to detail.  “We don’t want to upset him,” her mother said.  “He’s doing the best he can.”

“But there’s better food.” The smell of it sometimes reached her — rich and marinated and real.  “Why can’t we eat some of that?”

“You know why,” her mother said.  “We’re lucky to have someone with Randall’s skills.  He makes our food look like other food, so we can enjoy it.”  She took a bite, swished it around in her mouth and pretended to savor it…even as she struggled to chew, then made an awkward gulp as she swallowed.  “Odors can also enhance our experience of food, Marcie.  Try to enjoy the smell from the kitchen, as Randall cooks for the others.”  Her mom took another unconvincing bite.

That night, as always happened, the Others came.

They were as mindless as the movies used to suggest.  They shambled to the houses, often forced their way inside to find people hiding in cellars, cowering behind locked doors.  Sometimes the barricades weren’t strong enough, and the victims’ screams echoed long into the night.

At Randall’s shelter, the Others never ventured inside.  An offering waited for them on the porch — nicely prepared meat, shaped into a human face, olives for eyes and red peppers forming a smiling mouth.  Beneath a quilt of ham slices, fashioned to resemble a shirt, large portions of brothy gel would burst forth at the urging of decayed hands, and meat pieces shaped like internal organs would spill onto the ground.

The Others ate their food that looked like other food, remembering the smell and taste of humans and, as always happened, they left satisfied.

June 28

The Hell Of Food That Looks Like Other Food (Part 1)

 

On this date in Graysonville, Alabama, seven years earlier, Randall Haines actually won the food competition.

He wasn’t part of the eating contests — where people would stuff excessive numbers of hot dogs or pizza slices into their faces while the stopwatch ticked…or where people ate dog food or cat food, or crunched pan-fried crickets, or slurped up earthworms as if they were spaghetti.  No, Randall was one of the artists.

The goal, in his chosen category, was not to produce the best-tasting pie or BBQ pork or corn pudding.  His challenge was more in the vein of sculpture:  shaping food items to represent other objects.  In previous years, competitors had made buildings out of crackers and cheese; a Christmas wreath of white chocolate leaves, tinted with green dye; or they formed human faces out of lunch meat, with olives for eyes and red peppers arranged into smiling lips.

The winners of the food-sculpting competition, however, were usually those who made one food item look like another.  Rice was popular, with different food coloring added to simulate (for example) a gray hamburger patty, the sesame seed bun, tomato and lettuce and a red-rice drip of ketchup.  A pate mixture worked like clay, and could be fashioned into a turkey leg or a glistening T-bone steak.  Cakes shaped like a fish and chips dinner or a bowl of salad were also very popular with judges over the years.

The time Randall won, he’d submitted a large three-dimensional facsimile of the USDA food pyramid, with the represented food groups all depicted using items from a different category. The dairy items were all sculpted out of vegetables, with ground cauliflower creating the liquid in a glass of milk, and a potato sliced and dyed to look like wedges of swiss cheese.  The fruit group items were made from meat, with tiny meatballs meticulously linked to form a bunch of grapes, a pale hot dog forming the inside of a peeled banana.  And so on…

It was a memorable favorite with the crowd and judges alike, an elaborate production that showcased Randall’s ability to simulate all kinds of food.

His skill came in handy, once the apocalypse struck…

 

[…continued tomorrow…]

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