Norman Prentiss

Excerpts from The Apocalypse-a-Day Desk Calendar

Lava Scape

October 30

Mischief Night

 

“Where I’m from,” Erin says, “we called it Moving Night. The night before Halloween, people would move things from each others’ yards:  steal a potted plant off one porch and put it on another, or roll a bike down a driveway and into the next block.  Maybe turn a car or two upside down.”

There’s definitely some moving going on outside, but it’s not bicycles or a porch plant.  It’s mostly footsteps.

Mischief makers, scoping out the property.  Deciding what kind of prank to pull.

“I guess your teenage vandals ran out of toilet paper.”

“Yeah, right:  after the great diarrhea epidemic of ’ninety-four.”  Erin smiles, but she’s maybe a little annoyed, too.  She tends to get defensive about her hometown.  “Toilet paper is a bit cliché, don’t you think?   Moving stuff around had a different effect.  You woke up the next morning, wondering how much the world might have changed overnight.”

“I could do without that kind of change.”

“Not like that,” Erin says.  “Not like that.”  Referring to the Big Change, which really did happen overnight, like some awful cosmic prank.  So many towns obliterated, including the town where she grew up.  Her parents.  The neighbors she grew up with.  “My favorite tricks were the subtle ones,” she says, getting back to her story.  “Things got moved just a little bit, so you’d barely notice.  Or something new, put on your porch or parked in your driveway as if it belonged there.  Some kids removed the Middleton’s tire swing and attached it to the tree in our front yard.  That firm, overhanging limb was just aching for a swing, and my family hadn’t realized it.  It looked so perfect there, and even the Middletons agreed, and they let us keep it.  From then on, Flora Middleton had to come to our yard if she wanted to swing, and that’s how we became best friends.”

It’s a nice story, and a welcome distraction.  But you still couldn’t ignore the footsteps around the perimeter of the house.  You tried to count how many there were, as the steps rustled through dry grass, dead leaves and fallen twits.  It was hard to guess the number, but thickening shadows across the front windows suggested a large crowd.

The clamor on the lawn is too close, too loud, and you feel like you should begin your own distracting story.  Something about your childhood, about happier times, and you’d try to add down-home details, a favorite toy or a puppy or a cooing baby…and you’d stay calm, your voice wouldn’t get more nervous and shrill in a desperate attempt to drown out the crowd outside.

But you can’t think of a good story.  Instead, you ask: “Whatever happened to Flora?”

“Flora kept a job in town.  She lived with her parents.  So she died with them, too.  And came back, the same way.”

Footsteps outside.  Some thumps, too, and a sound like hissing — which is probably shoulders leaning against the house, dragging across the paneling or the window-glass.

“I saw her on television,” Erin says.  “Right in the middle of one of those terrible crowd scenes,  and there’s my best friend, Flora.  She looked horrible.”

More footsteps and thumps and the sound of bodies dragging across the house.  You wait for the mischief to begin.

October 29

World Stroke Day

 

“The sky is blue.”

You look at your friend, thinking she is crazy for uttering such a random sentence.

“Raise both your arms.”

Still thinking she is crazy, maybe playing “bank robber” this time, you lift your arms over your head.  One of your arms feels heavier than the other, and you let it lower.  Now you’re a student in class, raising one hand for the teacher.

“Can you smile for me?”

You consider the possibility, but can’t think of anything to smile about.   There’s been too much sickness in the world lately, driven by a strange new virus that, in addition to the usual symptoms of headaches, vomiting, and high fever, has also increased incidents of severe stroke in many patients.

Everyone is educating themselves about the warning signs.  These days, it was impossible to call a doctor’s office, pharmacy, or even a yoga center without hearing the same recorded message:  “If you experience any of these symptoms, please call 9-1-1 or visit the nearest Emergency Room immediately.”

As many times as you’ve heard the message, you can’t quite recall the list of symptoms.  You hope memory loss isn’t one of them.

You’re just tired, which is why you’re having trouble concentrating.

“The sky is blue,” your friend says.  “Repeat the sentence.”

You’re inside, so it doesn’t make sense to talk about the sky.  Your friend is being silly.  You’re also wondering why she’s wearing a paramedic’s uniform.

She touches one side of your face, studying your expression.  She’s acting so serious, you decide to comply with her request.

“Skittle bot-bot,” you say.

October 28

The Last ____________ on Earth (Part 7)

 

He points the camera at the articulated doll on the tabletop.  After making a barely perceptible adjustment to the head, arms, and legs of the figure, he clicks the computer mouse button, preserving a single-frame image.

The doll’s feet are bolted to a peg-board floor, so it doesn’t fall over during the range of its motion.  A bright solid-green cloth covers the back wall behind the tabletop, and several shapes painted the same color represent “furniture” on the miniature stage.

He makes another adjustment to the doll, unbolting one foot to lift a leg slightly in the air, nudging the arms to begin the simulation of a casual stride.

Another click, another frame of movement captured.

The man checks the monitor screen, clicking back and forth from the image with the green background to one that replaces the green areas with a full-sized room:  a door, decorated walls, sofa and chairs around a coffee table.  The combined scenes line up properly, so the man continues.

The next tiny increment continues the doll’s stride from right to left, and the man even makes a small adjustment to the realistic facial features, closing the eyes to make them blink.

Click.

More adjustments, more clicks.  After an hour, and 72 frames of recorded movement, the doll has “walked” six steps, half-way across the tabletop stage.

Now the man transitions to creating the doll’s next series of motions. He moves the head, adjusts the corners of the doll’s tiny mouth, then clicks the computer mouse to record each increment.

He works for hours.  Once he’s almost finished, he realizes the alignment is incorrect for one segment, and he has to do it over — another hour’s work.

Finally, the day nearly over, he’s certain the brief scene is completed.  He adjusts some of the filters, then finalizes the composite.

All day, and he barely has twenty seconds of completed film.

He clicks play on the viewer, and on the monitor screen he watches a pre-recorded sequence of himself, in his living room, standing to greet a new visitor.  The animated doll strolls across the room, arms swinging, then pauses.  The doll looks at him first, smiles, then raises his arm to shake hands with The Last Animator on Earth.

Since the apocalypse, it is the first time the Animator has received a visitor.

He clicks replay on the computer, watches the scene again and again.

 

[this entry presented to commemorate International Animation Day]

October 27

1904 — New York City opens its first underground subway line

 

Soot makes his hair look gray, and his skin has a wrinkled, leathery texture from too much exposure, but the guy you’ve sought out is a lot younger than you expected.  Twenty years old, at most.

It will feel strange having to take orders from him.

But that’s one of the drawbacks of entering a new society.  You have to accept their rules, follow their chosen leaders.

“The farther we get away from the surface, the better.”  He leads you down a long, steep stairwell.  “Up ground, that’s where all the terrible things happen.  The explosions, then the wind and fire storms.  The contaminated air.”

You hold onto a metal rail, and hope it continues unbroken for the length of the stairwell.  The lighting is sporadic at best:  scattered torches jammed into a few wall-mounted light fixtures, with large patches of darkness between.  It’s easier to navigate by smell, though the odors rising from below are hardly pleasant.

“No rose gardens down here,” he says, sensing your discomfort.  “But at least the air won’t kill you.”

“Where are the others?”  You’d heard this was one of the larger communities, but there was no murmur of conversation in the distance, no music or laughter.  You worry that you’re descending into an dark abyss, a massive tomb beneath the city.

Then it occurs to you that people must have felt similar anxiety when the subway line first opened, more than a century ago.

“The others are working.  You don’t have any problem with work, do you?”

“No, sir.”  Again, you feel strange addressing a young man as if he’s older.  As if he’s the long-serving executive of a major corporation, and you’re some kid fresh out of college hoping for an unpaid internship.

He leads you into a tunnel, alongside a stretch of tracks.  No trains in sight, of course.

“We’re making the city again,” he tells you.  “Like a mirror.  Or the reflection of the city in a lake.”  His eyes catch a gleam from a nearby torch, flashing bright with the excitement of his ideas.  “The goal is to dig ourselves as deep in the earth as our buildings were high.”

A few steps later and you reach a large steel door — almost like a bank vault.  Instead of opening outward, where it formerly would have fanned into the path of oncoming trains, the door slides to the side along a horizontal track.

The door itself makes a rusty, clanking racket as the community leader pulls it aside, so it takes you a moment to register other sounds.  Sounds of life.  Food being shared, the clicking beat of music, the healthy clatter of things being built.

Survival above ground had become nearly impossible.  Finally, things were going to get easier.

You walk toward the hubbub, hoping to meet the members of your new community.  The people are in silhouette.  They look like they’re dancing, arms waving above their heads.

“Careful.”  The guy’s arm stretches in front of your chest, stopping you from moving forward.

A good thing, since you almost stumbled into what looks like the beginnings of a wide pit.

“We’re here,” your new boss says, lifting a tool from the ground and handing it to you.  “Now, dig.”

October 26

National Pumpkin Day

 

On a special October episode of a daytime medical program, the dubiously credentialed host presented pumpkins as The Next Great Superfood:

“Don’t simply carve faces in them, drop in a candle, and leave them on the stoop.  The parts you usually scoop out and throw away — the seeds and pulp and flesh-fruit — can actually change your life.  My guest and I are going to show you how.”

For the next hour, the host and his invited “expert” demonstrated various ways to prepare pumpkin innards:

– pulp and flesh squeezed in a juicer, with a list of added spices, would boost the drinker’s immune system (a claim supported by an audience member, rather than scientific evidence).

– sliced and chilled sections, added to salad, helped the user burn calories at an amazing rate (“Be careful not to overdo this technique,” the expert cautioned.  “Losing weight too quickly can be harmful.”)

– pumpkin seeds dropped in hot water brewed a hot tea that supposedly worked like a caffeine-substitute in the morning and (an unexplained contrast) managed to soothe insomniacs to sleep at night.

– a paste of olive oil and mashed pumpkin created an ointment that cured rashes, erased wrinkles, and also served as…“Cover the kids’ ears if they’re in the room,” the host said before whispering into the camera: “…an intimacy aid.”

Further outlandish claims filled out the hour, until they’d promised every possible health benefit to men and women in the viewing audience.  Except:  “No, no,” the expert said.  “No pumpkin pies.  Those are full of sugar.”

As sometimes happens, the claims in the TV episode had “gone viral” online, reaching beyond the daytime audience to spread throughout the U.S., Canada, and beyond.  Consumers fought over gourds in the grocery store, at roadside stands and local pumpkin patches.  The lure of health, beauty, and virility inspired countless people to change their diets — as if they’d finally found the source of eternal youth, eternal life.

They found just the opposite.  As they made smoothie shakes from the seeded slime inside a pumpkin, as they brewed a cloudy tea or spread mud-orange ointment over their bodies, as they topped salad with chunks that looked like spoiled cantaloupe or chose hard pumpkin wedges to replace laminated cheese on their sandwiches…all the while dreaming of pounds melting off, energy returning to tired muscles…they didn’t realize the pumpkins themselves had also “gone viral” — in the more traditional meaning of the word.

A genetic modification, intended to produce larger pumpkins for October holiday decorations, somehow reacted with what should have been a harmless, natural pesticide. In small quantities, the effect would go unnoticed…but the TV show had encouraged massive ingestion:  grated skin, rind, fruit, even the stem blended into every possible meal combination.

People lost weight, yes.  Because the pumpkins destroyed their stomachs.

Ironically, in their final moments, the victims’ skin tightened over their faces in an orange, ribbed pattern.  Their eyes, nose, and mouth grew bruised and black from the sickness.  Each death mask looked like a jack o’lantern.

October 25

“Dear Apocalypse”

[The Advice Column for our Troubled Times]

 

Dear Apocalypse,

I think we can all agree, we’ve pretty much hit rock bottom.

Most of our cities are in ruins, the air is thick with dust (and maybe radioactive poison), most of us can’t scavenge enough food for our families (if they’re still alive).

And the weather.  Remember when we used to enjoy talking about the weather?

But as my dad, rest in peace, used to say: no sense in griping about things you can’t change.

But that’s what my friend does all the time.  Let’s call him Gus, because he’s the Gloomiest Gus I’ve ever run across.  Every since the Collapse, I’ve never seen him crack a smile.  He walks around with a sour look on his face, even when he’s not in active pain.  I do my best to cheer him up, telling jokes or reminiscing about happier times, but I never get a positive reaction from him.

In fact, I think my efforts sometimes make him angrier!

I’ve offered him some of my meal rations, which he might accept with a nod — but even then, it’s like he’s can’t stop worrying where the next dinner will come from.

I keep saying things can’t get any worse.  Maybe I’ve been wrong about that, considering that cloud of flying fire ants that swept through town last week.  Even so, I know you’ll agree that a positive attitude makes everything easier to bear.

So, what can I do to make Gus less Gloomy?

 

Signed,

Hopeful in Huntsville.

 

* * *

 

Dear Hopeful,

 

You sound like a grinning idiot.

Throughout your letter, mostly complaining how your friend’s mood affects you, I didn’t catch any particulars about why Gus is so sad.  What did he lose when the world ended?  Years of collected wealth, a comfortable home, a fulfilling job?  A pet, a spouse or child, his entire family?

Perhaps you never had such things, and cannot fully comprehend his loss.

All Gus has left, apparently, is an ingratiatingly cheerful friend who, once in a while, tears off a corner of beef jerky to share.

Leave the guy alone.  People cope with things differently.

Did you ever think that your unfounded optimism is your way of coping, just as his realistic pessimism helps Gus make it through each gloomy day?

If you really want him to feel better, maybe try to commiserate a bit so he doesn’t feel so isolated in his misery.

You’ll be joining him soon, whether you like it or not.  I hate to burst your bubble, Hopeful, but things are definitely going to get worse.

 

Signed,

The Apocalypse

October 24

1926 — Houdini’s Final Performance

 

“Do you believe in the miracles of the Bible?”

A small man dressed in dirty, oversized clothes leaps up from a city bench as you pass.  One of his hands grabs your wrist.

“Sure,” you say.  “Sure.”

As you yank your arm, hoping to move forward, you feel like a magician attempting to escape from handcuffs.

The key is in your mouth.  You’re afraid you’ve swallowed it.

Usually the street people want money, but the crazier among them are unpredictable.  If you say the right thing, the guy will release his grip.  The wrong word, the wrong “key,” and he’ll pull you close, start yelling and waving his arms, maybe punch you in the stomach a few times for good measure.

“Mysterious ways,” you say, hoping it sounds reverent enough to satisfy the stranger’s opening salvo.

“Indeed.”  The man smiles, apparently satisfied, but does not release his grip.  Where his arm stretches away from your own, you glance into the oversized sleeve of his jacket and think you see a living creature in the dark folds.

A pair of red eyes blinks at you from within the sleeve.  Feathers ruffle.  Whiskers twitch.  A tail shifts position over a furred torso.

You’re accustomed to imagining such tricks, from your days as an amateur magician.  Clothes were bulky for only one reason:  to hide things, including multi-colored scarves, playing cards, sponge balls and silver dollars.

A dove or two.  A rabbit.

“I’m in a hurry,” you say, nodding your head toward a high-rise apartment building far in the distance.  “I’m wanted at home.”

You think of other tricks — not when you produced items from thin air, but when you made them disappear.  A handkerchief over a glass of water; a black cape waved over a tower of colorful boxes; a bedroom sheet lifted to obscure your lovely assistant, who disappears when the fabric is removed.

And you imagine grabbing the man’s coat, turning it inside out over his body, and with fanfare and magic words — more mysterious ways — you twist the coat, wring it out, and the man beneath is somehow gone.  Vanished, to great applause.

“Spare a couple ’a dollars?”

You shake your head, mutter a standard apology.  The man finally releases his grip and lets you continue home.

This section of street rises at a steep angle.  Only five blocks further to go, but it’s essentially an obstacle course.  There always seems to be construction at one block or another, with orange cones blocking parts of the sidewalk, or scaffolding jutting from building fronts.  At an apartment across the street, a heavy tarpaulin drapes a makeshift metal frame along the side of the building — to contain asbestos, protect open windows from rain, or simply to hide unpleasantries of unfinished work.

Strangely, the workers have chosen a black cloth to cover the construction-in-progress.  You wonder if people still occupy the building.  It must feel, to them, like they’re shrouded in perpetual night.

What would happen if some giant magician pulled the tarp away with a flourish, revealing that the building beneath had disappeared?

You keep walking, steps falling into an automatic rhythm, barely registering your all-too-familiar surroundings.

You blink in disbelief.  There’s another building ahead, similarly shrouded.  It’s the local grocery, with three floors of rentals on top.  Right now, it looks like a black circus tent.

Several blocks further, and you’re almost home.  While you weren’t looking, a contraption of dark cloth had fallen over your own apartment building — as quickly as if it had dropped out of the sky.

You could swear it hadn’t been there before.  There wasn’t time for a construction crew to set up a scaffold, to raise tarpaulin with ropes and pulleys.

Trying not to panic, you race breathless up the street, getting closer to your obscured home.  Out of the corners of your eyes, you notice that a few more buildings are covered, the neighborhood apparently overtaken by sudden, ominous construction.

When you reach your address, you pause outside the black-skirted building.  You stand amazed, like a child waiting for the final surprise of an incomprehensible magic trick.  There’s no sound from beneath the cloth, only the shape of the building — or a memory of the shape.  Drapery on a collapsible frame.

You grab the cloth.  Give it a pull.

October 23

The Great Disappointment

 

It’s terrible when something you expect doesn’t come to pass.

You’d made plans based on your leader’s calculations: a Biblical reference to revolutions of the Sun and Moon; a pattern of numbers derived from syllabics and the frequency of letters within a verse; the odd phrasing of “a clearing,” interpreted to mean a clearing out, a sorting, a taking up of the worthy.

All your money, signed over to your unbelieving brother.  He’d laughed at your generosity, and you’d felt superior, then.  Enjoy the money, Hiram, for the hours that remain.  I won’t be needing it.

At those words, Hiram laughed harder, folded the check, said See you tomorrow.

During that final parting from your boss, you let fly a righteous speech about repetitive tasks, insufficient pay.  His smug, skeptical face remained impassive, expecting next week’s business would resume as usual.

Your spouse began to falter in the final hours, questioning your faith and your judgment.  You suspected you’d be taking the journey alone.

On October 22, the day of the prophecy, you waited.

And waited.

And…

Nothing.

This morning, your spouse woke you with a smile.  I see you haven’t been taken up.

Wipe the smile off your face, you said.  I signed everything over to my brother: the bank account, the deed to our home.

That’s when you learned that your brother and your spouse had spoken yesterday, and agreed to nullify the property exchange.  It was all a big joke to them.

And to others.  Apparently, you’d told more people than you realized about the October 22 prophecy.  Everyone you encountered seemed to smile with condescension.  Some of them said, Have you not gone up?…and then covered their mouths and turned their heads away.

None of them — not your spouse or your brother, not your boss or coworkers or random passersby.  None of them seemed to respect the great disappointment you felt.

For you, the world ended because it didn’t.

October 22

1976 — FD&C Red Dye #4 Banned in U.S.

 

In the early 70s, a particular red dye was identified as a potential cause for cancer in rats, and was removed from ingested food and cosmetics.  That ingredient wasn’t actually present in a popular brand of candy-coated chocolates, but the manufacturer nonetheless eliminated red from their usual assortment, to comfort a nervous public.

Later the FDA approved an alternate red dye, made from natural ingredients.  The “natural” part turned out to be ground-up bugs.

You’re one of many people who’d been conditioned to mistrust red as an artificial color.  No strawberry sodas for you, or maraschino cherries atop a sundae.  And red velvet, with the highest dye-to-batter ratio of any cake, was definitely out of the question.

Funny thing was, nobody ever seemed to die from eating red food.  The warnings ebbed and flowed, and people tended to survive.

Until recently.

Current FDA alerts have grown much more dramatic.  Their wordings refer not to “potentially harmful side effects” but instead assert a direct and immediate danger.

Not hypothetical lab-rat fatalities, but actual people…dropping dead within minutes of ingestion.

Whole cities struck down by each bad batch, because large sections of the populace didn’t get the warnings in time.

FD&C Green 48.  FD&C Red 111.  FD&C Yellow 14.5, b variant.

So many colors, so many numbers.  The list changes each day.

Your kitchen cabinet is mostly bare.  During Alert Season, it’s hard to get out.  Money doesn’t work the way it used to — or the roads, either.

But hunger won’t wait.  You take down a box of Froot Poops cereal and shake out a portion onto the countertop, spreading out the puffs and rings and clusters.  Carefully, you separate the pieces by color, making five distinct piles.

Starvation pangs make it hard for you to concentrate, and the whole activity exhausts you mentally and physically.  You know you’ll feel better once you’ve eaten something.

The different-colored piles of sugar cereal call to you.  They blur and glisten, shining with the gleam of natural fruit.  Your stomach growls in anticipation as you reach toward the juiciest morsels.

You’ve lost track of which colors were supposed to be dangerous.

 

October 21

Samuel Taylor Coleridge (b. 1772)

 

A strap of leather holds the large bird by its feet as it dangles from the apparition’s neck.  The bolt from a crossbow remains lodged in the bird’s breast, where it passed through its heart and out the back.

‘Twas a clean shot, but not one the Mariner felt proud of.

The albatross was a heavy burden.  On occasion it became lively again, flapping its wings and squawking with fresh awareness of its fatal injury.  At such times, the leather strap dug into the back of the Mariner’s ghostly neck; wings battered at his stomach like the fists of an angry child, and hot gore dribbled out the wound as the avian heart pumped anew.

For his crime against the albatross, the Ancient Mariner had been tasked to wander the Earth, seeking those who needed to hear his tale of cruelty:  a crossbow aimed at an innocent bird, fired on a whim, and bringing cosmic punishment to himself and his fellow mariners.  He hypnotized wedding guests and blacksmiths and schoolteachers with his tale, then wandered off to find the next listener, never knowing if his words had any effect on the people he encountered.

The world grew worse.  The gray-bearded Mariner, stooped over from his literal and symbolic burden, never seemed to grow older…but he became more spectral.  At some point, he hoped, his task would reach an end, and he’d be allowed to rest.

The Apocalypse should have brought that end.  His potential audience had dwindled, and now he rarely encountered people who might benefit from his strange tale.

Even if he found survivors, what might they learn?  Humankind had proven itself unworthy of his teachings.

Yet as he wandered along a country road, the Mariner’s heart began to beat rapidly at signs of life in the distance.  His heart, or the albatross animating again, its wings flapping against his chest.

He drew closer to the bulky older man, who leaned forward and pulled a wagon behind him — a container for his scavenged possessions.

The Mariner caught up with the stranger, then grabbed him by the arm to detain him.  “There was a ship,” he said, beginning his recitation.

“Unhand me, you gray-bearded lunatic.”  The old man struggled out of his grip, and resumed his slow pace forward.

So the Mariner tried the trick with his glittering eye, to freeze the gentleman in his tracks.  “The ship was cheered, the harbor cleared,” he recited.  “Merrily did we drop below the church, below the hill, below the — ”

The stranger waved an arm in the air to signal him to be quiet. “Oh save it, Ancient Mariner. We all have our albatross to bear.”  As the stranger turned slightly to reinforce his dismissal, the Mariner noted a dear foal strapped around his neck, the body riddled with buckshot.

He glanced into the stranger’s wagon, and saw it was piled full with animals, in various stages of decomposition.

The Ancient Hunter continued forward, pulling the wagon behind him.  He and the Ancient Mariner went their separate ways along that desolate country road…and Death and Life-in-Death laughed, and rolled their dice once more.

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