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Final Exam
Megan Arkenberg

Megan Arkenberg is a student in Wisconsin. In the name of story research, she racks up late fees at the college library, gets dizzyingly lost along the shores of Lake Michigan, consumes a steady diet of M.R. James, and lusts quietly after the architecture and costume of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Her work has appeared in Clarkesworld, Fantasy Magazine, Strange Horizons, and dozens of other places. She procrastinates by editing the online magazines Mirror Dance and Lacuna. Megan’s first story for Asimov’s is an unconventional tale about a troubled marriage further rocked by an unspeakable horror.
 

 

Part I—Multiple Choice
1. The first time you visited the ocean, that Fourth of July weekend when purple storm clouds swallowed the horizon and the great cerulean expanse below them was freckled with parti-colored sails, you looked out over the water and felt . . .
(a) the smallness of humanity in the face of a universe that is older and vaster and more full of life than any of us can imagine, much less understand.
(b) a sudden urge to jump.
(c) the awful terror of living.
(d) nothing; there was only the sea-spray on your face, salty, cold, and needle-fine.
(e) all of the above.

2. At what point did you know—and I mean really know, in your gut, in the tautness of your heartstrings—that things had gone horribly wrong?
(a) When you ran the faucet in the motel bathroom to wash the salty tear-tracks from your face, and the water came out cold and red, staining the sink.
(b) When the equipment at work started breaking down, first the conveyor belts on the registers, then the adding machine in the office, then the registers themselves. IT had the same advice over and over again: unplug it, turn it off, and plug it in again. Of course it never worked.
(c) When Donald looked up from the papers he was correcting at the kitchen counter and said Baby girl, what do you think about couples therapy? and you were so startled that you dropped the whole carton of orange juice.
(d) When the pink-suited reporter interrupted the inspirational drama on the television in the marriage counselor’s waiting room, her hair frizzled with electricity and her left eyebrow bloodied from a shallow cut to the forehead. Tell us what you’re seeing, somebody said, and she said, God . . .
(e) When you asked him to pass you a butter knife from the drawer, and he must have heard you, but he was marking something in the margin of his book and you had to ask a second time. He slammed the book shut and pulled the drawer so hard that it came off the slides. Here, he said, flinging the knife across the counter. It landed with its tongue-like blade pointed at your breast.

3. When the pink-suited reporter’s station showed the first footage of the things shambling out of the water, you compared them to . . .
(a) your neighbor’s dog, a blond-gray whippet with a scratched bald patch high on his left shoulder. You thought of Sultan when you saw the first shambling thing bend, draw back its black and rubbery lips, and sink its long yellow teeth into its own thigh, biting down to the bone.
(b) fish, especially the fat, foul-smelling, tasteless white fish Donald used to bring home by the bucket-load and smoke over a charcoal fire on the patio.
(c) skinny girls, like the neighbor three blocks over who took her early morning jogs in a white tank top that, by the time she reached your house, had turned transparent with sweat, displaying her prominent ribs.
(d) Godzilla, whose movie you had never seen, but whose general shape you vaguely remembered from a commercial for a Japanese automobile.
(e) the sea-witch from a picture book your favorite teacher read to the class one day, when it was raining too hard to go outside for recess. The artist had drawn the sea-witch with a water snake wound around her shoulders like a mink; the sea-witch was offering it a taste of a tiny red crab, which she held between her own sharp teeth.

4. After several months watching them, first through the reporter’s camera and then, later, through the slats in the boards you had pounded over your windows, you came to the conclusion that the shambling things had originated . . .
(a) on Mars.
(b) in an alternate dimension, where the laws of physics and geometry and merging into freeway traffic are subtly different, and it is possible to have four-sided triangles.
(c) in the nightmares of mankind, where we let our guard down and unleash the latent psychic powers of creation which, when we are awake, limit themselves to such pieces of good fortune as the perfect seat in the movie theatre, or a bra that fits.
(d) on this planet, in the natural course of evolution, which has already produced such monsters as the platypus, the hyena, and your skinny neighbor.
(e) after Chernobyl, or Three-Mile Island, or a worse disaster that a national government, or the Illuminati, had been more successful at covering up.

5. Now that it has been months since the last sighting, many people have chosen to believe that the shambling monsters are gone for good. You, however, know that they are . . .
(a) still in the ocean, huddled at the bottom of chasms too deep for sonar, waiting to rise again and feel the cold moonlight on their bulbous faces.
(b) taking on the appearance of everyday people, the cashier at the newly re-opened liquor store, the gang of skinny gun-dragging teenagers who moved into the old marriage counselor’s office, the woman who walks up and down the sidewalk in the late afternoon, calling out names you can never quite understand.
(c) in our nightmares, slowly shaping us to our true forms.
(d) hiding under your bed.
(e) both c and d.
6. What could you have done to prevent all this from happening?
(a) Become a better cook, as Donald’s mother always hinted with her gifts of Julia Child and Betty Crocker collections, the elaborate kitchen gadgets whose names, much less their functions, remained shrouded in mystery. Though you never really learned to love food, you did learn to cook, to boil and bubble the bacteria out of a can of condensed soup. Incidentally, your mother-in-law would be proud.
(b) Become a better liar. It is true that the pink-and-emerald tie he wanted to buy at the church flea market was the ugliest thing you had ever seen, uglier even than the monsters from the sea, uglier even than Sultan. But it would not have hurt you to bite your lip and nod your head and say Yes, for seventy-five cents it certainly is a steal.
(c) Prayed more, and harder, and to the right people. Saint Helena is the patron of dysfunctional marriage. Saint Neot is the patron of fish.
(d) All of the above.
(e) None of the above.

7. The worst part was . . .
(a) when the first shambling thing ate the pink-suited reporter, and the camera man didn’t turn away, and you sat there petrified in the marriage counselor’s office, watching the flesh blossom and drip over the creature’s scaly lips. Jesus Christ, you said, reaching for Donald’s hand. He was gripping a magazine cover too tightly to notice.
(b) when he flung the little velvet box at you over the dinner table, and you looked at him and you asked What is this for? and he said I knew you’d forget.
(c) when you checked into the motel, and you couldn’t stop licking your bottom lip even though you knew your saliva was keeping the split open, and the man at the front desk was clearly worried for you but he just as clearly didn’t know what to say, so he handed you a pair of key-cards and told you, earnestly, to have a good night.
(d) later that night, when you opened the bottle of pinot grigio that the liquor clerk had recommended and drank it all in one long throat-tearing gulp. Your cell phone started to sing from its compartment in your purse, the sweet black-and-white movie love song Donald had tried to serenade you with, once, in the back seat of your car. Even drunk, your thumb found the phone’s power button and turned it off.
(e) this moment, now, as you look back on all of it, and can’t think of anything that you would do the same.

8. When you came home from the motel the next morning, a hangover ringing in your ears, you found his packed suitcase sitting on the coffee table in the living room. You stumbled into the bathroom to vomit, and when you came out again, the suitcase was gone. That was, in a way, the last you ever saw of Donald. What happened to him?
(a) Shortly after he left, he was eaten by one of the shambling creatures.
(b) He met another woman on a bus to Chicago. She was taller than you are, and skinnier, and she smelled like cinnamon and vanilla.
(c) He joined that cult down in Louisiana, the one with the blood sacrifices and the idol built of concrete blocks, and he was one of the men who walked into the ocean on June 21, and became a pillar of salt.
(d) He committed suicide with a shaving razor in the bathtub of the same motel room where you hid from him, that last night. He never forgave himself for hitting you, not even when he remembered that you’d hit him first.
(e) He slipped, somehow, into an alternate dimension, where the laws of physics and geometry are subtly different, and there is a house just like yours, but the woman inside is a better liar.
9. His last thoughts were . . .
(a) incomprehensible with fear, the nauseating smell of his own blood.
(b) of you.
(c) revelations about the falseness of Euclidian geometry, the sheer wrongness of all human conceptions of time and history and causal relationships, that could never have been comprehended by another human being, even if Donald had lived, and admitted to himself what he had understood.
(d) of Christine Kaminski, the slender brunette who took him to junior prom, and who forged a deeper connection with him on that one night in the rented Marriott ballroom than you did in seven years of marriage. She wore pale blue, his favorite color, and only kissed him once, during the last dance of the night. If he had married her, he would have been happy.
(e) of his little brother, who died at birth, whom he never told you about. He intended to, but there was never a moment in that first year of marriage when you weren’t too busy with something else—arranging furniture, organizing closets and cupboards, filing for loans, writing thank-you cards. Afterward, it seemed too late to bring it up. The closest he ever came was during that Christmas dinner at your sister’s, when you teased him about being an only child.

10. Looking back on all of it, you still don’t understand . . .
(a) why all the equipment at work broke down that day. You even stayed an extra fifteen minutes to play with the reset buttons and a bent paperclip; it made you late to the marriage counselor’s office, which in some ways didn’t matter, because her previous appointment was running over and you had to wait anyway, but in some ways it did matter, because Donald was expecting you to arrive on time. It didn’t help in any case. Everything was still broken the next day.
(b) why the water in the motel bathroom turned to blood. Afterward, you asked around town, and learned that no one else had discovered blood or any other bodily fluids running through their pipes. But there was a lot going on at the time; maybe they simply hadn’t noticed.
(c) why you told Donald about the Little Mermaid picture book as you collapsed drunken and giggling into your own back seat. Your throat was hoarse from swearing at your baseball team as they permitted run after humiliating run, and you had spilled beer on the sleeve of your sweatshirt. You tried to wiggle out of it and it got stuck around your arm, and you said, This reminds me of a story . . .
(d) what attracted you to Donald in the first place. Was it his eyes, his soft lips, the way he ran his fingers through his hair when he was nervous, the way all his undershirts smelled like chalkboards, the way he tightened his tie with both hands before saying something important?
(e) all of the above.

11. After that incident in Portland, when the shambling thing almost caught up to you by clinging to the bottom of your bus, your favorite shirt became stained with
(a) seawater.
(b) blood (yours).
(c) ichor (its).
(d) semen.
(e) merlot.

12. Your sister, who knows these things, told you that the best technique for fighting the shambling monsters is…
(a) frying them with a blow torch.
(b) dowsing them with holy water.
(c) dragging them behind a truck.
(d) flinging them into a nuclear reactor.
(e) running until they tire of chasing you.

13. You most regret . . .
(a) missing that shot at the fast food joint in Vancouver, when the little boy died. It was not your fault; no one had ever taught you to fire a revolver, much less where to aim on a bulbous heavy-lidded nightmare as it slithered over a drive-thru window. But it was your fault, because the creature had followed you, and if you hadn’t stopped to eat at that particular restaurant and that particular time, it would never have killed that child.
(b) not letting him buy that hideous watermelon tie at the church flea-market, when you knew it reminded him of his grandfather, and made him smile.
(c) wearing your favorite shirt on the bus in Portland.
(d) shaking Donald as you got into the car in the marriage counselor’s parking lot, then slapping him across the face. No matter how terrified you were, no matter how much you thought he’d earned it, you should have known better than to hit him. You did know better. You knew it reminded him of his father.
(e) turning into your pillow that last time he tried to kiss you good night, so that his lips caught you on the cheek.

14. In your dreams, the shambling monsters appear at your bedside, and their voices sound like . . .
(a) radio static, interspersed with love songs from old black-and-white movies.
(b) the screaming of the pink-suited reporter as those yellow teeth crunched through her clavicle.
(c) the marriage counselor, with her gentle eastern accent, the sharp tick of her pen against her clipboard punctuating each clause.
(d) footsteps over broken glass.
(e) the whisper of a fish’s breath.

15. Now, when you look out at the sea, you feel . . .
(a) the smallness of humanity in the face of a universe that is older and vaster and more full of life than any of us can imagine, much less understand.
(b) a sudden urge to jump.
(c) the awful terror of living.
(d) his absence; there is only the sea-spray on your face, salty, cold, and needle-fine.

(e) all of the above.

 

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"Final Exam" by Megan Arkenberg Copyright © 2012 with permission of the author.

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