In this age of conspiracy…

With the ubiquitous presence of the Internet in our lives, misinformation, conspiracy, frauds, and pseudoscience have gained power and carved out a significant place in our society. Even for very smart, critical people, it can at times be difficult to distinguish between legitimate and questionable sources. In just the past few years, it seems that conspiracies have multiplied and gained traction. One of the most notable was the promise of the 2012 apocalypse as supposedly predicted by the Maya. The Maya never really predicted any such thing –the truth, like most truths, is more nuanced and not nearly as sensational– but it’s more exciting to think the world will explode, am I right?!

As an archaeologist this drove me a little crazy, but to make things worse, I have family members who manage to believe in dozens of sometimes conflicting conspiracies at the same time. I have come to understand that sometimes the blind belief in the strange replaces traditional religion. This inspired me to write (and publish) a short fiction piece that explores the madness behind certain conspiracy theories. Misinformation is not just harmless fun; we have seen time and time again that this can lead unstable individuals to commit terrible acts in the name of…who exactly?

The Countdown

(originally published in print in The Watermark, 2013)

 by Natasha L.

The clock had been ticking for as long as he could remember. As a small child Michael heard the tick tock as he entertained himself in the living room, lying on the thick red rug, waiting. He stared at the room and its individual objects, inventing a story for each. The clock did not bother him then, but sometimes it sounded more like a tsk, the tsk, tsk of a mother scolding her child. The rhythm became urgent, as though time had sped up. This he heard in the night, awake or dreaming, when he walked by the cellar door or when his father stirred the cubes in his evening booze.

“Toward the end of Time the world will grow ill, truly worse than it is now. Wretched things will be heaped upon us, and the planet will no longer be safe, at least until December 21st when all will come to a halt. The 12th planet will finally appear in the night sky, and alignment will be achieved. The end will seem nigh, and yet the people will become calm and hopeful during the last minutes of respite –the Earth will give off a sense of peace,” intones Michael. He smiles to himself, enjoying the power of his own words.

That is how Michael imagines things will unravel, near the end of the calendar. And who better to know this than the clock himself? He had long come to the conclusion that he was time impersonated, his innards wiring and his heart the beating timepiece.

When the worst is expected, hopeful fools will always be lulled by the calm before the storm. With their guns, underground shelters and canned goods, they will believe themselves prepared. But when the earth does not immediately shatter and engulf all things living, the wicked will think themselves spared, the good will think themselves chosen. But Michael knows better; there will be no escape, and the final countdown will have just begun.

From the cellar he often heard voices, men and women, laughing hysterically. He was always left out and could only wonder at the white, paint-chipped door. He would sit on the cold, dirty linoleum of the kitchen floor, imagining the fun he must be missing. His father assumed he was too young to understand, but Michael was always listening to the adults, interpreting their words as best he could. Once, his father had compared the neighbor’s dog to his mother; Michael understood this was no laughing matter. That day, long ago, he opened the white door –he would share in this joke– and in doing so brought up a waft of incense and cold sweat, and laughter that turned into screams as they reached his ears.

free stockphoto_starsMichael believes that as all gaze upon the firmament, waiting for their demise to come from above, this is when the dead will reach out from their graves and tickle the unsuspecting feet of the living. As they wrestle the dirt to reach the light, they will remember their hunger. This part is not in the Popol Vuh; the ancient Maya had not seen “Dawn of the Dead.” Young Michael had, and something similar, in the cellar. They were not truly zombies, and after seeing a documentary on Santeria he later learned they had been drugged. But if the living could become zombie-like, then why not the dead?

Then will come the solar flares, so that living flesh sizzles and bone crumbles. Earth will become a marshmallow, melting and white with heat. The last few survivors will hear the wind above; it must be a storm. It is nothing but fire. Fire like the ball of heat that flowed from Michael’s mouth to his stomach the time he stole a taste from his father’s glass. His mother disapproved of alcohol, as she disapproved of most things beyond breathing and praying. She did not tolerate her husband and his pagan practices, she feared them, and prayed harder, counting her prayer beads out loud.

Michael suspects the last few to survive, atheists and religious fanatics alike, will have simultaneous epiphanies in which they fancy themselves filled with grace.

“We must be the Ones, the survivors of Armageddon that will inherit the Earth and repopulate it with acts of kindness. The World has been cleansed,” chants Michael. “And of course they would think this, since near the end, society will have taken a turn for the worst: murder, disease, war, economic and moral degradation!” Michael laughs and beams at his audience.

His daughters, small blond children of two and four, smile back. They are nervous and confused, but even now they trust him; he has always been a gentle, loving father. At bedtime he tells stories, wonderful magical stories of talking animals, hidden gardens and enchanted fruit.

“Then tell me, why did the world not end with Nazi Germany? Were those not trying times?” he continues, gesticulating wildly. His wife jerks her head, nods, as tears stream down her cheeks, wetting the duct tape that holds her mouth shut. But her eyes are pleading and full of questions.

“I know what you are thinking, love. For a time I wasn’t worried, but then the clock started ticking faster…tsk, tsk, tsk, and everything was pointing towards 2012. It’s all over the media! Websites, documentaries, even the ancient texts! The Maya themselves predicted it,” he explains, as he smoothes out her hair, removing a few strands from her trembling brow.

When the ground starts to shake, Michael knows it will not be the four horsemen of the Apocalypse, despite all that his mother said. The earthquakes will sound more like beating drums, the ones his father used to play. The tectonic plates will shake and bend as the poles reverse, the plates will shift, free from the magnetic field that he thinks holds them in place. The Earth’s crust will collapse like a soggy cracker as the oceans wash over it.

“Do you understand? It’s not about good or evil. It will simply be the End; no new beginning after December 21st. How could there be? The calendar ends,” says Michael, hands held together in gentle supplication. “This is for the best, trust me.”

He starts counting the pills; the dosage must be exact. The sound they make as they fall from the bottle to the countertop matches the ticking in his head.

“Now open your mouths.”

He feeds them to his daughters. He waits to ensure they have swallowed and then unties his wife’s bonds. It is too late to fight; defeated she willingly takes the pills and hurries over to her children.  Michael leads them to the sofa and grabs a thick, leather-bound book from the shelf. Before they go to sleep, he will read them one last fairytale, his favorite of all.

“In the beginning God created the Heaven and the Earth…”




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