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Here are some excerpts from my newest short story anthology – one teaser, one complete story, and an example of the author notes I’ll be including with each piece.
WARNING: These stories contain strong language and scenes that may be disturbing for some readers.
He was a tiny, wrinkled old man. Barely three feet tall – a midget. Thin and withered. He was bald. He was naked. And he was in my basement.
Well, it was my basement now that Uncle Charlie was dead. Like everything about Charlie, his death was unexpected and inconvenient. The doctors had given him six months to live, but Charlie never did anything the easy way. For four years he battled the cancer – in his throat, his lungs, his bones, his liver, eventually even in his brain. A medical miracle he lasted that first year, they said. Then two more miraculous years of chemo, radiation and radical surgery. Another miracle while he lingered that last year in the hospital, doped up and bedridden. And then, just when it started to seem like Charlie was too tough to kill, he up and fucking died.
It couldn’t have happened at a worse time.
Year end was coming and I hadn’t met my quota. I had been busting my ass the last couple weeks lining up prospects. I had scheduled thirty client appointments this week. And then Charlie had to die and fuck everything up.
The others were already in the conference room for the weekly staff meeting. I didn’t see any point in pulling the boss aside.
“I need to take the day off,” I announced to the room. “My uncle just died.” To fill the silence I added, “Cancer. He’s been in the hospital for a long time.” I waited a second for the news to sink in before telling the boss, “I’ll reschedule my clients for next week.”
He nodded. “Of course. I understand. Take all the time you need.”
Before I could slip out the door, Tom stood up and placed a heavy hand on my shoulder.
“I’m sorry,” he said simply.
The perfect smile usually stamped onto his face was replaced with a somber compassion and sympathy. Sincere compassion and sympathy. Jesus he was good.
“If you need to take a few days, I can cover your appointments. Just leave the list on my desk.”
Typical Tom. Everyone’s friend, always ready to help out. Always sticking his nose where it didn’t belong.
“That’s a good idea,” the boss agreed. “Take the rest of the week off. Come back on Monday, if you’re up to it. And don’t worry about work – Tom can close those deals for you.”
Yeah, I thought, I bet he can. It was easy for him. People wanted to give him their money. He’s got looks, personality and confidence. Add in a gorgeous wife who says all the right things at every party, a daughter who’s class president and a son who’s the star pitcher of the local little-league team and he’s almost too fucking perfect to take.
Me; I’ve got nothing. But the rich just get richer. Tom was scooping my prospect list right out from under my nose. He even looked good doing it. I could see the admiration in the faces of everyone around the table. That Tom, they said, what a great guy. Taking on extra work, helping out a fellow employee. Tom, what a prince.
“Thanks,” I mumbled on my way out the door. What else was I going to say? Fucking prick.
Charlie’s death wasn’t all bad, mind you. As his last living relative, I inherited his entire estate. Legally everything probably should have gone to Isabella – as far as I knew they were still married. But she was off in Spain, or Italy, or Romania, or wherever the hell Gypsies come from, and I wasn’t about to tell the executor about her. And I sure as shit wasn’t going to track her down and tell her that Charlie had left everything to me.
I’d only met her once, nearly twenty years ago. Exotic, mysterious, foreign. Hot blooded in every sense of the word, Charlie used to say. A Gypsy princess, Charlie said. Maybe true, maybe bullshit. With Charlie you never knew.
She was rich, though, and rumor was she was a mighty fine piece of ass. Even still, Charlie caught us all by surprise when they eloped. He left everything behind – his only brother, his friends, his job – to run away with her.
“They won’t last five years,” my mother had predicted.
As usual, Charlie defied all expectations. His marriage outlasted Mom’s prediction. Hell, it outlasted Mom. Dad, too. Charlie never showed for their funerals. But about two years after Dad died Charlie came back. Just called me out of the blue, saying he was back in the country, did I want to go for a beer? Just like the last twenty years had never happened.
The story I got was that Isabella caught him with the maid, and Charlie left so fast he had to buy pants at the airport. There must have been more to it, though. Charlie had managed to stash away too much money from Isabella’s family fortune in Swiss bank accounts for me to believe everything was spur of the moment. Several hundred thousand dollars I guessed, though Charlie never offered a final total.
“A drop in the bucket for her family,” is all he would say.
But with his ill-gotten nest egg to support him, and the fear of Isabella’s unholy wrath, Charlie had no intention of ever going back.
“She’s too proud to come after me,” Charlie confided in me once. “It’d look like she still cared, and she’d never admit that. But I know Isabella. There’s nothing she’d rather see than me as a destitute, broken shell of a man.”
Turns out she got her wish. In no time Charlie turned his small fortune into big debts. Bad business deals, bad investments. Everything he touched turned to shit. And then came the cancer. After the hospital bills and taxes the only thing left of his estate was the house. My house. And now there was a naked midget in the fucking basement.
He was curled up in a little ball on a throw rug in the corner, sleeping. The basement lighting made his wrinkled, age-spotted skin look a sickly green. His arms and legs were long and spindly, his hands and feet flat, splayed and too large for his limbs. His ears were small; his nose long, thin and pointing noticeably down towards his sharp chin.
“Hey – wake up!”
At the sound of my voice he jumped to his feet. For an old guy he moved pretty quick. For a second he looked scared, but then seeing only me he seemed to relax. Even had a bit of a smirk on his lips.
“What the fuck are you doing in my basement?” I snarled, pissed off by how calm he seemed to be.
“Your basement?” he said, “I thought Charlie lived here.”
“Charlie was my uncle,” I explained. “Now he’s dead. He left me his house.”
“Charlie’s dead?” Suddenly he sounded anxious. “When?”
I wasn’t scared of him. He wasn’t very big, and he obviously didn’t have a weapon on him. But that didn’t mean I wanted this shriveled dwarf hanging around.
“Listen, pal, you better tell me what the hell you’re doing here or I’m going to call the cops.”
He smiled, revealing a set of yellow teeth, all of them sharpened to a point.
“Wednesday. And today’s Friday,” he muttered to himself. “There’s still time.”
He seemed to be ignoring me, and it was pissing me off even more. A small part of me wanted to just pick him up and toss him out the front door, but the rest of me really didn’t want to get into a physical confrontation – those pointy teeth were a little unnerving. Plus, I didn’t really want his withered junk slapping against me if he put up a struggle.
“Are you going to leave quietly or not?”
He didn’t answer, not right away. He just stared at me, studying me carefully while picking his nose. His fingernails were stained and dirty – and about an inch long. He withdrew his finger from his nostril and inspected the result before flicking it in my direction.
“Listen, I could be very useful to you. And now that Charlie’s dead I’m in need of a job. I’m a bit out of practice, what with him being in the hospital for so long, but give me a week and I’ll be back in top form.”
He wasn’t taking me seriously; so I decided to get tough.
“Listen, you little prick! I want some answers from you or I’m going to get Charlie’s baseball bat from the garage and bounce your wrinkled old ass off every wall in this place!”
My bluff never even fazed him. He snorted in contempt, flashed those fangs and grinned. “You don’t have it in you, bub. Now how ‘bout that job?”
The small part of me that wanted to toss him out the front door withered under his gaze. The guy was small, but something told me he was trouble. Maybe crazy. I decided to humor him, try and talk him into leaving.
“Look, I’m not really looking to hire anyone ri— ”
“You ever worked with a gremlin before?”
He shook his head in exasperation. “You have no idea what’s going on, do you?”
“Well,” I admitted, “it is kind of hard to figure out exactly wha—”
He held up a hand to cut me off. The skin on his palm was a chalky white, contrasting with the green tinge over the rest of his body. Maybe it wasn’t the lighting.
“Okay, listen close cuz I don’t want to go over this twice. You know what a gremlin is, bub?”
“Uh…like a leprechaun?”
Damn, he had a loud voice for such a little guy. Loud and shrill.
“Do I look like a god-damned leprechaun to you? Do you see any pot of gold lying nearby? I’m a gremlin, you idiot! A minor malevolent spirit! You even know what malevolent means?”
Now I was actually getting scared. He was obviously crazy and possibly more than a little dangerous. And I’d just made him mad. For a second I thought about turning and running up the stairs, but I remembered how quick he’d been when he first jumped to his feet.
“Hey, bub! I asked you a question: do you know what malevolent means?”
I didn’t want him to get even more worked up, so I answered in what I hoped was a calm, soothing voice. “It means bad, doesn’t it? Evil.”
“Close enough. Anyway, that’s what I am. A gremlin. A minor malevolent spirit.”
You look like a crazy midget with bad teeth, a skin condition and no clothes, I thought. But I wasn’t stupid enough to open my mouth.
“And, as a supernatural denizen of the underworld,” he continued, “I bring certain… advantages to any business relationship.”
I decided that playing along was probably the safest thing to do. “You mean you have powers? Like you can grant me a wish or something?”
He spat on the floor in disgust. “A wish? Do I look like a fuckin’ genie to you? I’m not asking you to rub my lamp, bub!”
Jesus he was pissed! I thought he was going to take a run at me and sink those pointy little teeth into my leg just below the kneecap.
“Sorry,” I said, holding up my hands in front of me. “Sorry, just calm down. I’ve never dealt with a…a gremlin before. Why don’t you just tell me what you can do?”
He rolled his eyes and broke wind before answering. “One day left to get me another job, and I’m stuck with a fuckin’ retard! Okay, bub – I ain’t got time to trade up so I’ll give you the scoop. You ever hear of Murphy’s Law?”
Heard of it? I was living it. “If anything can go wrong, it will.”
“Right. So let’s just say Murphy had a lot of experience with gremlins. We specialize in making life miserable for people.”
“I still don’t see what you’re doing in my uncle’s basement.”
He thought about his answer for a long time, scratching himself in the place all naked guys scratch themselves.
“Look, I was here to make Charlie’s life hell. That was my job. But once he went into the hospital, I didn’t have much to do. I mean, how much worse could things get? So I just sat around doing nothing. I got careless. I got lazy. That’s why you caught me napping down here.
“Normally, the person I’m working on never even knows I’m around. But now Charlie’s dead cuz of cancer and I never got to finish the job. That’s bad. If a person dies and I haven’t finished the job, then I only have three days to find a new …well, let’s just say ‘victim’… before I get banished back to the Underworld.”
I didn’t like where this conversation was heading. “So now I’m going to be your new victim? Is that it? You’re going to make my life miserable?”
He threw up his hands in frustration. “Not the sharpest bulb in the barrel, are you bub?”
“Look, I can’t just pick someone at random. No freelancing allowed. I have to be working for someone. That’s the rules. I was sent here for Charlie, and now that he’s dead I’m out of a job. Unless I start working for you.”
The last thing I needed was this green-skinned little freak hanging around here all the time. “I can’t really afford to hire anyone,” I said.
“You still don’t get it, do you? Listen, I’ll spell it out like you’re six.
“I don’t work for money. What good would money do me? I don’t eat, I don’t wear clothes. For me it’s simply a matter of survival. I was summoned to do a job on Charlie. I failed. He died before I could finish. As punishment, I’ll have to wander the ninth layer of the Abyss until someone summons me again. That could be centuries!
“So where do you think I’d rather be, bub? Down in Tartarus, or up here with you mortals?”
“Uh…look. I’m sorry about Tartarus and all. But I don’t want you living in my basement.”
“I wouldn’t be living in your basement, moron! I’d be living with whoever you want me to go after – hiding out in their basement, making their lives miserable, just like I did to Charlie. You have any enemies? Any rivals? An ex-lover, maybe? Anyone in your life you’d like me to bring a little misfortune to?”
I still didn’t believe him, of course. But suddenly I saw a way to turn my problem into someone else’s. An idea began to form in my head. Not a very nice idea.
“There’s this guy at work,” I admitted. “Tom Simmons. He definitely needs a little bad luck in his life.”
“Good,” he said, his eyes gleaming. “Go on – tell me about Tom Simmons.”
I could see he was getting excited. A little too excited. Jesus, even his ears were twitching.
“Maybe this is a bad idea,” I said, suddenly realizing how crazy this all was. “I don’t want you to go and shoot him or something.”
“That’s not how it works,” he said, his voice slick and cunning. The same voice I use when I’m trying to close a deal. “I can’t kill them; it’s not allowed.”
“So what will you do to him?”
He flashed another pointy toothed grin. “All I’ll do is pester him. A few little annoyances and inconveniences. A string of bad luck. That’s all. I’m not a demon – just a malevolent spirit. And a minor one at that.”
It was hardly the sporting thing to do; sick this demented little psycho on unsuspecting Tom. But damn it was tempting. Hell, even if Tom caught the guy trying to sneak into his basement and called the cops before anything happened it was worth it just to get rid of the little troll.
“You’ve got yourself a deal.”
Read the rest in A Minor Malevolent Spirit and Other Tales! Coming April 2015!
Eve held the Fruit of Knowledge out to Adam. She understood now, it was all clear to her. “It will elevate you,” she said, “lift you up to His level.”
Adam took it in his hand, hefted it, feeling the weight. The soft rind of the forbidden fruit matched the deep red of Eve’s lips. He answered her with the words of his master, “To eat this is to know Evil and Death.”
Eve clasped her husband’s wrist, repeating the words of the serpent, the words that had finally made her understand. “How can we know Good if we do not know Evil? How can we know Life if we do not know Death? Should we not seek such knowledge? Knowledge will elevate us. Should we not seek to raise ourselves from our position as God’s ignorant servants?”
Adam could smell the sweet scent of the fruit, both rising up from his hand and on his wife’s breath. He squeezed his fist and sticky juice ran from between his fingers, glistening as it dripped from his fist onto the ground. Again he recounted the words of his creator. “We are not His ignorant servants. He is the father, and we are His children.”
Eve seized on his argument, just as the serpent had seized on her own words.
“Then are we not meant to grow? Are we not meant to become like our parent, become like Him? Should we not seek to emulate Him? By eating this fruit we ourselves will become as our Father. Isn’t that what children should do?”
Still, he hesitated. “Adam, do not be afraid. Eat the fruit. It will change everything.”
Adam stared into the eyes of Eve, saw something there he hadn’t ever seen before—a depth that seemed to stretch into infinity, a well into which he could imagine himself falling forever. She had tasted knowledge. He recoiled in terror from her gaze, and threw the fruit to the ground.
The messenger brought the news to the Lord God. “Eve has tasted the fruit from The Tree of Knowledge, Lord. Surely Adam will now eat of it as well.”
The Lord God spoke, and Heaven trembled in the glory of his voice. “It has begun. They have tasted Knowledge. Now my children are ready to be my equals, fit to stand by my side.
“Send an escort to guide them from Eden, lead them to My Kingdom. Have Angels precede them, flaming swords ablaze and held aloft, that all the hosts of Heaven may see and celebrate the triumph of Adam and Eve, rising above their fear and ignorance to seek Knowledge.”
The Lord turned his radiant visage to the messenger. “It was your words that made them understand, my faithful servant. It was you who helped them conquer their fear. You have done well. The children of man shall forever revere you and your kind.”
“Thank you, my Lord,” the serpent hissed.
That night, as Eve slept, Adam tossed and turned. Her words rang through his thoughts. “It will change everything.” He knew she spoke the truth, that was why he was afraid. He had everything he needed. The Lord provided for them, and in return asked only that they serve him. What more could there be to life than to serve? He did not know, could not even imagine a different life. But part of him wanted to know. Part of him desired to taste the luscious fruit.
Sleep would not come this night. Adam made his way through the Garden, guided by the light of moon and stars. As he neared the Tree his eye was drawn by a brilliance in the distant sky.
He saw the Hosts descending, blazing swords held aloft. Adam ran back to the secluded grove where Eve slept, cursing the beguiling serpent and his gullible wife.
“See what wrath you have brought down on us!” he cried to the sky. “The vengeance of the Lord is come!”
The Hosts advanced in stately fashion, their glory out shining the stars in the Heavens.
“Wake up, woman!” Adam ordered, shaking Eve from her dreams. “And be quick. We still have a chance. Beyond the gates of Paradise is a bleak world, a world ignored and abandoned by God. The Fallen World. If we enter that world, He will not follow.”
Eve hesitated, not understanding. “Woman, why are you still lying there?”
“What kind of life awaits us beyond the gates, Adam?” she asked him. “What kind of life can we have in the Fallen World?”
Adam answered her with a hard slap across her face.
“Do not speak!” he screamed, fear and rage distorting his face. “You have done enough already! You had to eat, to taste Knowledge. Now we both will suffer for it! It is because of you that the Angels are coming, their fiery swords drawn. They come for us!”
Eve stared in horror at her husband, her hand raised to the welt forming on her cheek. Never before had he struck her, never before had he showed such rage and anger. Adam turned his back on her.
“I’m leaving now, with or without you.” Eve slowly rose to her feet and followed her husband as he made his way through Eden to the Gates of Paradise.
The gates were closed, secured with an elegant chain of gold. Adam hurled himself at the gates again and again, bellowing like a caged animal. At last the chain broke asunder, and the gates burst open. Adam stepped through the portal into a world of suffering and pain. Eve followed, weeping tears for that which was left behind.
The Heavenly hosts found Eden empty, discovered the Gates of Paradise swinging freely on their hinges. The hosts returned to Heaven to report the news to the Lord God: his children had deserted him. A single Angel stayed behind, his flaming sword raised up as a beacon to light the way should the children of God ever choose to return, to leave behind the Godless Fallen World of ignorance and fear.
The Angel waits there still.
Author’s Notes for Paradise Lost
This is the shortest story I’ve ever published; it first appeared in the summer 2003 issue of the now defunct Paradox magazine. I’m not a particularly religious person, but I appreciate the cultural power of religious archetypes, and I often draw on them in my stories (along with classical mythology, another form of religion). I often co-opt religious or mythical names because they come pre-loaded with expectations… and then I like to take those expectations and twist them in unexpected ways.
Even the title of this piece plays into this tendency – it’s obviously an homage to Milton’s famous epic poem. (Which I have read and thoroughly enjoyed.) Using these kinds of archetypes allows an author to do more with less, and this story – at only 1000 words – is a great example.
There are some readers who will probably see this as a feminist reimagining of the original tale: Eve is actually the hero, and Adam is the villain. I’m okay with that – I believe very strongly that genre fiction can and should depict female and minority characters in positive ways more than it does.
As a male author growing up reading genre fiction in the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s it’s easy to fall into the trap of making every protagonist white and male. An author should be aware of his or her own biases, and make sure they don’t compromise the story. But you also can’t force a character into a story that doesn’t fit. As a male, my first inclination is usually to have a male protagonist; I’m just more comfortable writing from a male viewpoint. As an author, however, you can’t simply accept your own limitations – we need to go outside our comfort zone.
A good exercise when writing is to first determine if a character must be certain things to serve the story: male/female, old/young, hero/villain. Sometimes you need a man or woman for a specific reason; or maybe you need a particular ethnic background because it ties in with the story. In this case, Adam and Eve are going to be male and female respectively. Other times, however, you realize that a character’s gender or race isn’t actually key to the story you are telling. In those cases, I often try to add some diversity to my writing.
There are other examples in this collection that focus on very strong female characters. That shouldn’t be surprising; with all the amazing things we imagine in the sf/f/h genres, why can’t we think outside the box when it comes to our main characters, too? You can’t sacrifice the quality of the story just to be politically correct, but often a story will actually feel richer and reach out to a wider audience if you take the time to try and be more inclusive in your writing. At least, that’s how I see it.
Incidentally, this story received a favorable mention in a Tangent Online review of the magazine. Among other things, the reviewer said, “Drew Karpyshyn has taken the traditional story of Adam and Eve… and turned it on its head in… a short story which confounds initial expectations…with a unique interpretation of one of the Bible’s oldest tales”.
Cool. That’s totally what I was going for.