The Beach

On the last day of the world, the man awoke smoothly.

He climbed out of bed, wrapping a terrycloth robe around himself.  His bare feet padded softly on the floor as he made his way downstairs.

He passed through the kitchen without pause.  He didn’t need to eat.  In the front hallway, he paused only to select a windbreaker from the closet.  The wind was already picking up outside, howling past the house.

The man stepped outside through the front door, strolling across the grass.  His bare feet crunched in the dew, still half-frozen on the green blades of grass.  His feet were chilled by the cold air, but he paid them no mind.

The pliant crunch of grass yielded to the rough ridges of concrete as the man continued.  He made his way along the path, paved with poor concrete imitations of tiled cobblestone.  The wind whipped at his hair and the edges of his robe, and the man was grateful when he passed in the shadows of buildings, temporarily shielded from the elements.

The sun still hadn’t fully risen, and the world was draped in shadow.  The pathway beneath the man’s feet became rough wood for a short period, as he crossed the foot bridge over the marsh.  The wood scraped at his soles, threatening to leave splinters, but the man was careful not to drag his feet.  The rope handrails of the bridge creaked as he passed.

The bridge sloped down, gently depositing his feet in the sand of the beach.  The man stepped lightly to avoid sinking in to the soft sand.  He continued in his path, gazing ahead at where the faintest hint of light and color protruded above the horizon.

As he drew closer to the water, the sand became harder, caked together and solid beneath his toes.  The man continued, only occasionally glancing down to avoid the sharp piles of shells.  The sound of the ocean was now a near-constant rush.

The man finally reached the boundary between sand and water, where the caked sand was still damp and briny.  The pounding waves slowed to a frothy trickle just shy of his feet.  The man stood there for a long time as the sun rose, gazing out past the end of the world.

Standing at the edge of the world on the last day, the man watched and waited, a slight smile hiding around the corners of his face.

The Roman Army Upgrade

Calcifer pinched the bridge of his nose in frustration.  “Look, once you get the hang of it, riding the thing really isn’t too hard,” he insisted.  “And I’m telling you, it’s the most efficient means of transportation in existence.”

The Roman centurions stared at the machine critically.  “It jvst looks so vnstable,” one of them commented.  “How do yov not fall over?”

“As long as you keep moving forward, you stay upright,” Calcifer insisted.  “I mean, we can even put some training wheels on it at first, until you get the hang of it.  But you could totally hold a lance up as you ride, and unlike a horse, you never need to feed it!”

The Romans still looked unconvinced.  Calcifer had to admit, the prototype wasn’t the best model he’d ever seen.  He was limited by the materials of the period.  The bronze chain had an unfortunate tendency to slip off the hand-ground gears at high speed, and the wooden handlebars occasionally snapped in half, which inevitably led to a crash.  But he still pressed on.

“Just imagine, a line of these, bearing down on the enemy,” he pleaded.  “Those barbarians wouldn’t stand a chance.  You would be showcasing the technological might of the Roman army.”

“Bvt we have the finest horses,” another centurion said.  “And it is mvch easier to trample a fleeing man beneath the hooves of a horse than the wheels of this . . . contraption.”

The soldiers weren’t biting, and their accents were giving Calcifer a headache.  “At least give it a try,” he insisted.  He was starting to regret making the bet with Gabriel that he could get the Roman army on bicycles.

The soldiers shared glances, until finally one unfortunate was selected by the rest of the men stepping backwards.  The man carefully straddled the leather seat, his eyes wide with fear.  Calcifer tried to calm him.  “Relax, just keep on pushing the pedals around,” he said.  “Keep your eyes up, and turn the bars to steer.”

“This will end vnfortvnately,” the man groaned.

Calcifer didn’t bother to wait any longer.  He gave the back of the seat a shove, and the vehicle lurched forward, the man letting out a shrill scream.  Impressively, he remained upright for several seconds, pedaling along, until he ran headfirst into a tree and fell over.

The other soldiers ran to attend to their fallen comrade.  Calcifer gloomily inspected the shattered remains of the prototype.  “Eh, I got one Roman on a bike,” he said to himself.  “At the minimum, Gabriel ought to call that a tie.”

He turned and addressed the soldiers.  “Okay, maybe you’re not ready for it quite yet,” he said, shrugging and giving them his most appeasing smile.  “I’ll try back in another couple centuries.”

The bike-riding Roman rose woozily to his feet, drawing his gladius.  “Yov jvst hold still,” he said menacingly, staggering forward.  “I want to thank yov for the present.”

“Okay, time to go,” Calcifer muttered.  He disappeared in a gout of smoke and flame, moments before the Roman charged forward.

Calcifer appeared back in the popina, where a comely maiden poured him a mug of wine.  He gulped it down as Gabriel sidled up to him.  “Pay up,” the angel said triumphantly.

“No way,” Calcifer retorted, allowing the maiden to refill his mug.  “I got one of them on a toga. That counts.”  Gabriel opened his mouth to protest, but Calcifer turned away, pointedly ignoring his response.  He did smile slightly as he replayed the image of the soldier trying to bike.  He could definitely spin this into ‘sowing discord’ in his next report to Hell.

It just seems like a bad idea.

The Caveman’s Take on Modern Life

The idea sold wonderfully on paper. “A caveman’s insights on our modern world!”, the cover letter proclaimed, and we had three agents in a bidding war by the end of the week. In retrospect, I should have pulled the plug right then.

Instead, I turned to Will, the grad student who had suggested the project, and told him that he was in charge. “I’ll admit, this wasn’t my idea when I started tapping into our Jungian consciousness,” I admitted at the lab meeting. “While I’m not thrilled about the commercialization, the insights could help us see our culture through the eyes of a truly unbiased outsider.”  Plus, our lab could use its share of the profits, but I kept that to myself.

“Yeah, exactly. That’s totally what I was thinking,” replied Will, who had been daydreaming about how he was going to spend his five-figure advance. “We were going to recruit a couple undergrads to serve as the vessels, pay them for their time.”

I briefly considered this. “Make it course credit instead,” I specified.

For the next couple weeks, there wasn’t any mention of the project, and it quickly slipped my mind. A month later, however, I found a very troubled Will sitting in my office, holding a stack of papers and wearing a disheartened frown.

“I don’t think I can publish most of this,” he complained, as I settled into the chair behind my desk. He passed over a sheaf of observations for me to peruse.

I read a line off the top sheet. “Why must we not get wet?  Do we not immerse ourselves in falling rain each morning?”

“That’s their observations on rain,” Will explained.

I flipped to the next page. “This is not food!” I read. “Where is the blood?  Where is the marrow?  Where is the fire, for us to gather around and share in wisdom?”

“One of the students visited a grocery store,” Will elaborated, sinking lower in his chair. “They also didn’t see the point behind cars, Instagram, or Twitter.” He rubbed one hand through his hair.

“Is there anything they liked?”

The question elicited a groan. “Yeah – push-up bras,” he moaned. “And once they tasted KFC, they were hooked.”

I flipped through the next few sheets of observations. “These are horrible,” I observed.

Will nodded. “Yeah, I can’t publish any of it. But I already spent my advance!” he cried. “Professor, what do I do?”

Leaning back in my chair, I closed my eyes, dropping the papers on my desk and rubbing my eyelids with my palms. I did my best to recall everything I could about popular culture and gossip magazines. “What about dating?” I finally asked.

At first, Will said nothing, but then his eyes suddenly lit up. After an effusive burst of thanks, he went running out of my office.

He was absent from the weekly lab meetings for the next month or so. Just as I was about to write him off, assuming he had dropped out, he showed up, out of breath but bragging about his newest idea. “It’s the ultimate source of dating advice!” he proclaimed. “Oprah meets Jerry Springer!”

He went on about his newest entertainment pitch, but I just shrugged my shoulders. Despite however it capitalized on our lowbrow culture, if it brought in funds, it was fine with me.

Calcifer’s Intrusion, Part II

Part I.

 “I’ll confess something,” the devil said. “I was originally going to pull an Old Testament when I saw you, pillars of flame and all that. But you and I both know that we can’t go around whipping out the flaming swords any more.”
Despite not wanting to agree with the enemy over anything, the angel was forced to nod. “Too much paperwork,” he complained. “I mean, even just a simple smiting requires me to complete a WX1074-B within 24 hours. The long form, even! I can’t fill out the short form unless I have three angelic witnesses testifying that it was ‘blocking an active corruption’.”
Calcifer nodded sympathetically. “And no possessions for me, not if I don’t want to go before the advisory board,” he said. “So while we could still pull of a miracle if we really needed to, we’re forced to follow the same rules as the mortals.” Azrael was nodding, agreeing despite himself.
At that moment, the barista stepped up to the table. “Something wrong, Calcifer?” she asked.
Yes, there is,” the devil replied, obviously enjoying the shocked look on Azrael’s face as he heard the mortal use his true name. “This man, here, should be refused service and thrown out of this shop.” He made a shooing gesture towards Azrael.
The barista sighed and rolled her eyes, but she turned towards the angel nonetheless. “Sorry, but you’ll have to go,” she said apologetically. “You know, ‘right to refuse service to anyone’ and all that.”
What? Do, do you have any idea who I am?” Azrael stuttered.
The girl shrugged. “Afraid not. But I know this guy’s a devil, and he’s the only one that stops our cappuccino machine from breaking twice a week. So we try to keep him happy.” She jerked her thumb towards the door.
Angels aren’t programmed to disobey orders; those that don’t follow the beat of the drum tend to become fallen and join the ranks of the devils. This didn’t stop Azrael from glaring fiercely at both Calcifer and the barista as he packed up his laptop. “I hope you realize that, just by consorting with this monster, you’re putting your immortal soul in jeopardy,” he snapped at her as he turned to leave.
The girl shrugged, not looking particularly worried. “I get a lot of impure thoughts anyway,” she admitted. “Besides, I stopped going to church when I was, like, eight.”
As the angel stormed out of the coffee shop, the girl turned to Calcifer with a tired look. “Calcie, I know you get off on the whole ‘abusing power’ thing, but you need to stop with this,” she complained.
Calcie? What is this?” Calcifer broke in. “I’m a devil! You can’t give me a nickname!”
The girl wagged her finger at him, in what he felt was a far too scolding manner. “Look, if I’m your big guns for keeping angels out of here, I get to call you whatever I want,” she explained. “You can either deal with them all yourself, or you can make these beans roast themselves. Your choice.”
As Calcifer snapped his fingers, causing demonic flames to gently lick each of the coffee beans behind the counter until they were perfectly dry-roasted and ready to be ground, he wondered if he was being used. No, he decided. He was an immortal devil, tasked with the corruption and degradation of humanity itself. There’s no way that mortals could be pulling a fast one on him.
Meanwhile, as the barista headed back to the counter, she was also weighing the benefits of keeping the coffee shop devil around. He did keep the machines in perfect running order, and saved them from burning the coffee. That was worth the occasional hassle of playing along with his little squabbles.
Halfway back to his booth, Calcifer paused, glancing up at the ceiling. “Wait, squabbles?” he asked suspiciously.
He heard no response about his very important cosmic battles with the angels, however, so he returned to his booth without further incident.

Calcifer’s Intrusion, Part I

Calcifer scowled, hunching over his cup of dark roast coffee (grounds in the cup) as he glared at the intruder. This was his coffee shop! He had staked his claim, and some, some angelhad no right mucking up the place!

At his small, round table at the front of the shop, Azrael had not noticed the angry stare being aimed at the back of his head. After ordering his usual drink (soy latte with hazelnut), he had removed his Macbook from his book bag and set it open on his table, looking forward to continuing on his novel. Despite being assigned to watch and safeguard humanity for the past several thousand years, he was still having a nasty issue with the plot twist on page 79.
For several minutes, Calcifer watched his enemy type, his cup of coffee starting to boil from the heat of his palms. Several times, he felt the urge to simply start throwing fireballs. However, Calcifer prided himself on having learned from his time spent among the humans. Forcing his fingers to unclench, he took several deep breaths before rising to his feet.
Azrael continued to type, pausing only to push back his scarf every now and then as it slowly slid forward to cover the keys. The plot twist was still giving him trouble, he had to admit, but he had managed to work in some excellent character exposition. After a while, however, he realized that he could feel a second pair of eyes, reading over his shoulder.
As he spun around in his chair, Azrael wasn’t sure whether to chastise (“How dare you read my work! It isn’t finished yet!”) or to ask for opinions (“Do you think I’ve properly captured the introspective mood?”). When he laid eyes on his observer, however, the question died in his throat. He was definitely chastising.
What do you think you’re doing here?” he hissed at the smirking demon who had been squatting behind him.
Calcifer met his angry gaze. “Me? This is my coffee shop. You’re the one who doesn’t belong.”
Azrael sniffed loudly to show his derision. “Yourcoffee shop? As one destined to spread the word of God, I believe that such a bohemian abode is clearly my domain.”
Annoyingly, Calcifer didn’t cower before this righteous tirade. Instead, he slid into the chair opposite Azrael, a slight grin flickering across his features. “If that’s the word of God,” he commented wryly, nodding towards the laptop, “then God really ought to learn how to break up run-on sentences.”
The angel flushed scarlet at this insult to his writing abilities. “It’s called stream of consciousness!” he spat, barely keeping his voice under control.
Calcifer shrugged. “Look, I don’t really care,” he admitted. “But this place? It’s between a college campus and downtown. This is where the addicts, the sinful students, the money-focused business traders, come to get their caffeine fix. Clearly it’s my domain. Besides, I’ve got my own booth and everything.”
Really,” sniffed Azrael. “Your own booth? I think Divine authority gives me more power than your reserved spot in the back.” He leaned back, glaring at the devil, but Calcifer remained undeterred, lifting up his hand to wave at somebody with a ‘come hither’ gesture.

The story continues in Part II!

Daily Challenges: Now with Expert Mode!

Lots of inspirational blogs suggest a new activity or experience to try each day.  Here at Missing Brains, we’ve upped the stakes, by adding an “Expert Mode”, worth double points!

1. Go for a bike ride around your neighborhood.
Expert mode: remove the handlebars.

2. Go to the library, check out a dozen books that look interesting.
Expert mode: don’t bring library card.  

3. Pay for everything with cash – no plastic!
Expert mode: change only, no bills.

4. Make some fresh, homemade cookies.  Enjoy with milk!
Expert mode: no oven mitts.  Instead, you may use two pairs of pliers.

5. Wear a fake mustache for an entire day.
Expert mode: whenever you are asked about it, you must tell them it is for “mustache rides.”

6. Make a chalk mural.
Expert mode: spray paint.

7. Read the graffiti in a public bathroom stall, searching for gems of wisdom.
Expert mode: leave your number.

8. Learn one new word a day, and use it in conversation with strangers!
Expert mode: word must be offensive.

9. Compliment someone every day, for 10 days straight.
Expert mode: make sure they can see the knife in your hand as you do so.

10. Paint your face and attend your favorite team’s sporting event.
Expert mode: other team’s colors.

All original ideas taken, without apology, from dayzeroproject.com.

Happy New Year!

No story today; I just wanted to wish everybody a happy 2013!

Some of my resolutions for the coming year:

1. Edit my novel!

2. Find a publisher agent who will pay me millions is willing to help get my novel published

3. Get into graduate school!
3a. If I don’t get into graduate school, figure out what I’m doing with my life.
3b. Survive crisis of existential dread.

4. Get married, Fall in love, Not get anyone pregnant

5. Start updating every day Keep updating every other day

6. Write down more of my story ideas before they are forgotten forever

7. Win the lottery, self-publish my novel, put advertising everywhere, become obscenely rich, and then consequently spend my entire fortune on Mallomars.

The best argument for obesity.