Horror & Dark Fantasy

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017

Advertisement

Fiction

Ten Things to Know About the Ten Questions

Respond to the following statements, using a scale of 1 to 5 (1 being “Not at All True” and 5 being “Always or Almost Always True”).

1. Something tells me there’s another place I belong, a place that’s been waiting for me.

• • • •

They say goodbye. They say it with a strange smile like a kid who overheard a secret. But they don’t share what they know. They just walk out the door.

Maybe it’s a cabin door. Or an office door. Or a plain screen door in suburbia.

They walk out and they don’t come back.

• • • •

My Uncle Ray’s the first in my family to vanish. It happens in the early weeks when the chattering faces on television and the mindless voices online still claim it’s some newfangled fad that will taper off like acid-washed jeans or hula hoops did.

I half-bury my face beneath my comforter. “Where did he go?”

“Probably out on a drunk,” my dad says and tucks me in as if that’s an answer.

But I can’t sleep. My parents watch from the doorway as I wrap one corner of my comforter to a bedpost and tie the other end around my waist.

“Nobody can steal me now,” I say, my body tottering against the bed frame as though I had spun in one too many circles.

They ignore me when I plead with them to fasten their bed sheets around their waists the same way.

“There’s nothing to worry about, Vivienne,” they say. “It’ll be over soon.”

• • • •

2. No one feels or thinks the way I do.

• • • •

By the end of the month, over a thousand are missing, and the little white number in the corner of the news reports ticks higher every day.

There aren’t bodies. The people simply vanish like soap bubbles. “It’s been long enough,” my parents say to the other parents during bridge games and over church pews. “They need to do something about it.”

I ask who “they” are, but no one tells me. All the adults and even a few kids in my grade keep talking about “them” as though they have the answers.

But they don’t have answers. They have questions. Ten questions to predict who’ll disappear next.

The news outlets announce the questions with clever headlines like “Ten Things to Know About the Ten Questions” and “Are These Ten Questions the Answer to Our Fears?”

Bright posters appear on every lamppost and grocery store bulletin board. I never see anyone hanging them up. Instead, the glossy images materialize out of the ether as though the world is swallowing people whole and spitting out posters to replace them.

The picture is always the same. A mother clutching her two children, all three solemn like prisoners whose punishment entails posing for a sappy PSA. Beneath them, there’s a catchphrase emblazoned in red letters: Help us help ourselves. Ask your friends and family if they’ve taken the test.

I see the sign again and again, but the test isn’t what worries me. I’m irked neither of the kids are wearing tethers around their waists.

“Have you completed it yet?” the smiling Sunday school faces ask my mother, and she smiles back and says we have.

I wonder why she lies about it, but I don’t question her. She’ll only hush me if I do.

“My whole family’s safe.” Our next door neighbor leans over the fence. “My wife and I had the lowest scores possible.”

I scowl, squirming at my parents’ feet. “A low score is good?”

“Sure is,” he says. “A ten is perfect.”

I want a ten, too. This test sounds easier than learning the periodic table, and I already aced that in the fifth grade.

So on Monday morning when a bubble sheet lands on my school desk, I answer thoughtfully, the tip of my pencil painting shadows over the tiny circles.

I finish first and deem that a good sign.

Before the lunch bell, I’m corralled into a far corner, my books and puffy coat and Hello Kitty backpack overflowing in my arms. Three others join me.

“Maybe we did really well,” I say.

We stand there for an hour, though no one tells us why.

“There’s a new classroom,” the teacher says to us after the others have departed for the cafeteria. “You’ll be happier there.”

Between her tight, lacquered smile and sweaty face, I know she’s lying. But I’m not brave enough to make the accusation. A girl named Tally does it for me.

“If you’re sure this new classroom is so great, why doesn’t everyone go?” Tally’s wide green eyes never blink as she waits for an answer.

“Because you’re special,” the teacher says, and then I’m sure we’re in trouble.

• • • •

3. There might be problems in the world, but I want to be here and help fix things.

• • • •

The school sends me home with a note. My mother reads it after dinner and passes it to my father. Neither of them look at me. They never look at me again, not closely. They don’t want to see what the test sees.

“Those normal people don’t know what they’re missing.” Tally skips to her desk at the front of the cramped classroom. She chooses the seat because the roof leaks on the nearby radiator. The incessant plink-plunk on metal crafts a strange tune, and Tally likes to sing along.

“Quiet,” says the teacher.

The rest of us obey. In our top floor room, we stare silently at our desks—old desks with scratched wooden tops that open upwards. Mine has an ancient message carved into it: Julie loves Johnny 4E.

There are thirty of us transplants, every grade represented in our ranks from sixth—my and Tally’s year—through twelfth. We have nothing in common beyond our test scores, but the scores are enough.

Every day, one or two students sob before lunch.

“Quiet,” says the teacher.

Usually, the younger kids cry the most, but the older ones break down sometimes. I do too. We all take our turn. All except Tally. She grins and listens to the rain streaming through the roof.

“Plunk-plunk-plunk-plink,” she harmonizes.

I peer at her from two rows away. She’s there and not there, an unsolvable riddle. Part of me is sure she must live in a castle surrounded by an alligator-laden moat or in a graveyard where she tutors a battalion of ghouls.

I decide to follow her. I’m disappointed to find her home’s nothing more than a two-story off-white house at the end of a lane.

She leaves the front door open.

“Do you know how to play jacks?” she asks from the top of the stairs.

I shake my head, and she offers to teach me.

“It’s worth knowing,” she says.

Tally arranges the game on the landing, and I sneak gazes at her whenever she’s not looking.

“Where are your parents?”

“Maybe at work,” she says. “Or maybe they’ve wandered off.”

“Wouldn’t you miss them?”

“They aren’t here even when they’re around.” She flips the red ball into the air, and the silver metal scatters. “How about your parents?”

“They’re around,” I say. “They just don’t talk much anymore.”

Tally giggles. “No one talks much anymore. Not to us.”

After I lose at jacks, she shows me her backyard. The barren fields and skyscraper hills go on forever.

We walk until dusk, her naming birds and flowers as we coil through overgrown paths. The words she says are all nonsense, but I memorize every syllable.

When I get home after dark, my parents demand to know where I’ve been. I tell them I stayed late at school to work on my test scores.

“As long as you’re learning something,” they say.

I smile and think how Tally’s the best teacher in the world.

• • • •

4. No matter how hard I search, I’ll never find other people in this world like me.

• • • •

The week the number hits a million worldwide, the government sets up a dedicated hotline.

“If you see anything unusual or suspect your family or friends are in trouble” and so on.

Like learning our own phone numbers in kindergarten, the teacher forces us to rehearse the toll-free digits.

Tally recites it wrong every time, her impromptu threes and fives throwing off the whole class.

“Quiet,” says the teacher, “or it’s detention.”

That’s a lie. The parents of the other kids in detention would complain if one of us were banished there.

After school, Tally and I listen to the somber voice on the other end of the phone ask, “What have you seen? What do you know?”

She stifles a laugh and hangs up without reporting anything.

We call nearly every day. Mostly, she dials, but sometimes, I’m brave enough to press the buttons.

After awhile, we rarely get through, and if we do, the hold time is three or four hours.

“A person will be gone for good by then,” Tally says, huddling next to me in the corner of her room where no one will discover us.

But the hotline does its job. Neighbors watch neighbors. Smile too wide or say goodbye, even as a joke, and the flashing lights will surround you inside of a minute.

“We’re here to help,” they’ll say before escorting the person somewhere safe.

It happens to my neighbor, the one with the lowest test score. He and his wife are whisked off to a treatment facility for so long the grass grows knee-high in their yard and the mail backs up and the real estate lady comes with a sign, though the place never sells.

Down the block, another neighbor is escorted away but returns a day or two later.

“Everything’s fixed now,” she says.

But my parents never let me walk too close to her property again.

“Contagion,” they say, and like everything else, I believe it.

• • • •

5. Even if I wanted to, I could never do or say anything that would upset my family.

• • • •

They assume we’re depressed. All us kids in the special department must be depressed or anxious or something else, something that would account for us wanting to exit the world.

So the teacher gives us tests. Every day, new tests. New except for one. We always get those same ten questions, the ones that condemned us in the first place, the ones that aren’t really questions at all, but just a series of banal statements.

In the morning when we sit at our steel desks with the wooden tops, the bubble sheets might be waiting for us.

“Quickly now,” the teacher says. “Don’t over-think it. Just give your honest responses.”

Or maybe the test will be there after lunch or between other “How are you feeling today?” assessments. As if they can sneak the ten questions past us.

“Like we haven’t already memorized every word,” Tally says as she squeezes my hand across the aisle. I move my seat from the third row to the first, so I’ll be closer to her. No one cares where I sit, not the teacher or the other students. Only Tally notices. But that’s the only person I care about.

On the worst days, the questions are the last thing we do, the last thing we see. Those nights, the test swirls through my mind while I sleep.

I dream of marking the right answers. But not Tally. She’ll never color the correct circles. She’ll score a fifty—the worst number—and she’ll laugh and I’ll laugh too. Because if anything’s contagious in that town, it’s her.

By the end of eighth grade, three students have disappeared, none of them from our class. For two years, we’ve all stayed put while the rest of the world vanishes.

“You got it backwards,” Tally says before singing along to the leak in the roof.

“Plink-plunk,” she croons. “Plunk-plink.”

• • • •

6. Things just go on and on in life without much purpose or direction.

• • • •

On the first day back after Christmas freshman year, our teacher doesn’t return. The police search her house. Everything’s there as it should be. Everything except her.

“I hope wherever she is, she’s happy,” Tally says.

Though my parents never met my teacher, they’re red in the face once she’s gone.

“How can you expect to help our daughter if you hire deviants to teach her?”

Deviants. That’s the word for people who vanish.

Other red-faced mothers and fathers agree. They gather in the school auditorium on a Monday night for a performance with twice the melodrama of anything the theatre students have presented there.

Halfway through Act Two, Tally sneaks in the back.

“Where are your parents?” I whisper, but she pulls me into the half-lit hallway without answering.

I still haven’t seen her mom and dad, and I wish she’d at least lie and say they work strange hours. But Tally doesn’t lie, not even when she should.

She leads me down the stairs into the library basement. My sneakers graze Salinger paperbacks and hardcover Tolstoys on the musty bottom shelves.

“There are books about it, you know.”

I squint at her through the dark aisles. “Books about what?”

“The others who disappeared,” Tally says. “It’s always happened. It just wasn’t as common before. But the world’s speeding faster now. Maybe the disappearances have to keep up.”

She pulls a text from a gray corner and deposits it in my arms. “Look for yourself.”

There they are on yellowed pages: the names of those who vanished. And the years, too. 1910. 1845. 1944. 2001. One or two come back. Most don’t. They’re gone as if the world made a mistake in coughing them up and needed some way to remedy it.

Tally and I sit cross-legged on the mottled carpet and gawk at maps and drawings. Roanoke Colony is our favorite.

“Mass disappearances are fun,” she says. “It’s like everyone’s in sync with each other.”

The skin on both my arms bristles. “But they’re not in sync with the world,” I say.

“Maybe they are.” Tally smiles. “Maybe it’s everyone left behind that’s wrong.”

• • • •

7. The thought of never seeing my family again is unpleasant, but I could live with it.

• • • •

Tally turns sixteen a week before I do. There are no sweet sixteen birthday parties since we have no friends except each other. No driver’s exams since the state doesn’t trust us with a license.

“Fools,” Tally says. “It’s not like we’ll take the car with us if we disappear.”

But we learn to drive anyhow, teaching each other with her parents’ silver sedan that has dust and grime and dead wasps on the dashboard until we wipe it clean.

The unkempt trails behind her house become our crash course.

“Is this all there is to the world?” I ask.

“There can be more,” she says, taking the wheel.

We borrow the car over spring break. Borrow is the word Tally uses, but we both know it’s stealing or would be stealing if her parents were around to complain.

North Carolina on Route 64. We never discuss where we’re going. But the silence we share between us spoils the surprise.

The silver sedan ricochets from Manns Harbor to Roanoke Island across the Virginia Dare Memorial Bridge.

The library book has a sketch of the baby. The first settler born in America. The first child fizzled into nothingness.

I tremble. “Poor little Virginia Dare.”

“At least people remember her,” Tally says. “She’s wasn’t lost and forgotten.”

Tally and I and the ghost of Virginia wander the beach, the ocean salt burning my nose as if I’m breathing fire.

We pretend we’re Sir Walter Raleigh back to claim his colony.

“Where ever could they have gone?” Tally stands tall and puffs out her chest. “They must be here somewhere.”

I laugh and skip alongside her.

We sleep on the shore with seaweed blankets and pale sand pillows. Tally uses a seashell for an alarm clock.

At home, my parents greet us with a search party half the size of the town.

Tally’s family isn’t there. And now everyone knows why.

• • • •

8. I prefer to be alone rather than with other people.

• • • •

So she can’t disappear, Tally’s foster family locks her in a room with one window. She pries it open.

The hills behind her old house wait patiently for us, and last year’s leaves crackle beneath our feet.

“How did you pay the bills?” I ask.

“My parents owned the place, so it was just property taxes and utilities,” Tally says, shrugging. “And they had a decent savings account. It wasn’t so hard.”

I stop, my feet sinking in the mud. “Not so hard? Tally, you’ve been on your own for years.”

“No, I haven’t,” she says and wraps her hand around mine.

She leads us back to the main road, past the “For Sale” sign in her front yard.

Under the auspices of helping Tally with the transition, the state puts the house on the market. The officials promise to give her the money since the property is rightfully hers, but as the child of deviants and a would-be deviant herself, she doesn’t expect much.

“Besides, nobody will buy it.” She kicks the sign as we pass.

Tally returns that night to a lecture from her foster parents. When that doesn’t work, they paint her one window shut. I visit anyway, crouching against the cold siding, knee-deep in mulch. She and I play tic-tac-toe through the glass, exhaling warm breath on each side and matching our lines through the double panes.

She always wins. Sometimes, I let her win because it makes her smile.

Then I smile, too.

• • • •

9. It doesn’t matter what the facts say; there are some things I just know.

• • • •

On Tally’s eighteenth birthday, we skip school and break the seal on the front door of her old house. Tally was right: the place never did sell. It’s too poisoned for any respectable family to buy. Everyone knows you can’t get the stench of deviant out of the wallpaper.

We forage through cupboards and unearth one can of ravioli that hasn’t expired.

“To the birthday girl,” I say, raising the dismal meal to the air.

Tally assembles a game of jacks on the landing.

“Things will be better now,” I say, dabbing dust from the railing. “We’ll live here together where no one can find us.”

She grips the pointed silver baubles in her hand. “I wish that were true.”

I gulp air. “Tally?”

“I’m leaving,” she says, her gaze never faltering from the red ball and its army of shiny soldiers. “My foster family set it up. They’ve already got the treatment facility picked out.”

The ravioli forces its way back up my throat. “When will I see you?”

“I’m sorry,” she says.

We abandon the game before it’s done.

As her birthday gift, Tally asks to take a walk at dusk. Our last walk, she calls it.

“I’ve known people who return from treatment after a week,” I say, sinking into the mud, sinking, always sinking.

“And some never come back.” She grasps my hand so tight it throbs. “You know which one I’ll be.”

The leaves crunch beneath our feet. They might well be the same leaves from our walks years ago. Nothing out there ever changes. Nothing except us.

I start to say something, but a gust of wind cuts between our bodies.

“Do you hear that?” Tally stops, her fingers releasing mine. “It’s calling to us.”

I struggle to catch my breath, the breeze hazy in my lungs. “What’s calling us?”

Tally’s running up the hill before I can pull her back.

“Hurry!” She screams and giggles and falls over her own feet but hoists herself up again and keeps going.

We reach a clearing where she hesitates, her head tipped back, taking in the sky.

“Goodbye, Vivienne,” she says, smiling.

It’s nothing like I think it will be. There are no bright lights. One moment, she’s there. The next, she fades out like a song at the end of a record. I can still see her for awhile, even as the shape of her body becomes more indistinct, the colors of her eyes, her clothes, her skin bleeding together like a kid’s watercolor palate left on the blazing summer sidewalk.

That heart-shaped face and wide smile are the last to go. I reach out, hoping to tether myself to her, so I don’t lose her forever, but my hand searches the darkness, wildly.

Tally’s gone. And she won’t return.

• • • •

10. The world and everything in it never gets better; things only get worse.

• • • •

In class, I sit next to her empty desk. The ceiling still drips, but she’s not there to sing.

The school holds another meeting. I loiter alone in a back corner while my parents lead the discussion at the front.

“You had that girl in the program for years,” they say. “And you still couldn’t help her. You haven’t helped any of the students, have you?”

The administrators sputter and stammer and then say nothing at all.

No one cares about Tally until it’s too late. But too late is better than never.

I’m in the last class that graduates before the special department’s dismantled. Slowly, all the other programs across the nation follow suit. They have their own reasons—budget cuts, low attendance—but I prefer to think even when an elementary school in rural Wyoming tosses its last ten-question bubble sheet in the trash, Tally’s there, stifling a giggle over what she’s done.

Just before donning a cap and gown, I take the test for the last time.

By then, I’ve learned how to lie, which earns me a perfect score of ten.

It doesn’t feel as sweet as I’d hoped.

• • • •

Add up your response, reverse scoring items 3 and 5.

• • • •

People never stop vanishing. A hundred more evaporate each week, abandoning the rusted playgrounds and jogging paths and little houses nestled on pretty little streets. The government imposes curfews, but it doesn’t help. If people want to disappear, they’ll disappear.

I finish high school and move home. But not my home. Tally’s home. She leaves me everything she owns along with a note in the will: See you soon.

I move into her bedroom and pretend she’s there. Her misty form darts behind the dresser or into the hallway as if we’re playing a game of hide-and-seek that never ends.

At dusk, I walk the trails behind the house. The clearing where she departed calls to me.

Like a witch at a Sabbath, I reach the center and close my eyes, murmuring the same incantation.

“Tally . . . Tally . . .”

Nothing happens. Not at first. But if I linger long enough, the trees dance all around me, and her laugh fades like an echo into the night.

I listen to what she says.

I listen, even though it’s always the same.

She tells me it’s not my time.

Not yet.

I ask her when.

Soon, the wind whispers. I’ll see you soon.

Smiling, I retreat inside.

On the landing, the game of jacks waits for her, just as she left it.

One more move, and Tally wins.

• • • •

Interpreting Test Scores

10-19: You are at low risk of disappearance. Please help us by watching your friends and family. Always report any strange behavior. You are our best hope for stopping this crisis.

20-29: You are at moderate risk of disappearance. Please stay close to your family and friends. Consider seeking professional help at one of our newly designated treatment centers.

30-39: You are at high risk of disappearance. Please locate a treatment center in your area or ask a trusted friend or family member to assist you.

40-50: Call the number at the bottom of this test immediately and share your results.

Enjoyed this story? Get the rest of this issue in convenient ebook format!

Gwendolyn Kiste

Gwendolyn KisteGwendolyn Kiste would have been a psychologist by now, but she kept bothering her professors with research papers about horror and science fiction. Consequently, it made the most sense to ditch a dissertation in favor of genre literature. She blames her love of the macabre on her parents who raised her on a steady diet of Bradbury, Poe, and Hammer films. Among other publications, her fiction has appeared in LampLight, and she acts as a slush pile reader for Sanitarium Magazine. An Ohio native, she currently lives on an abandoned horse farm in Pennsylvania with her husband, two cats, and not nearly enough ghosts. You can find her online at www.gwendolynkiste.com.