Change can be hard.
It can knock us off track, upset the balance, subvert the very fabric of our existence. But what do you do in the face of change? Stop living? That’s usually not an option. The world waits for no one, and it certainly won’t be stopping for you. The planet will continue its resolute orbit and you will be left to pick up the pieces of your life and try to fit them back together into some semblance of normalcy, what’s called “getting your shit together” in the parlance of the times.
But how can you get your shit together when fish-monsters are taking over the world?
This is the conundrum faced by the characters in Megan Arkenberg’s “Final Exam”. The story places us right in the thick of chaos as the conflicts of a marriage on a speedy course to self-destruction are interrupted, exacerbated, and complicated by the arrival of horrific sea-people hungry for the flesh of the human race. This scenario seems primed for a jocular approach, and while Arkenberg does delightfully indulge in the premise’s potential for humor, her writing always reflects the emotions that are true to each given moment. She is at turns witty, subtle, and melancholic exactly when the story calls for it, a voice that shifts appropriately with the ebbing emotional tide.
The tale is told in the form of a test comprised mainly of multiple choice questions, with all of the various options to each query listed for the reader’s edification and consideration. Arkenberg brilliantly uses this format to lead us down the path of her narrative, each question building on our understanding of the last and revealing more of the story to us. We follow it like a tantalizing trail of breadcrumbs and, like the nameless protagonist witnessing the end of her marriage and species, by the time we look back to see how we could have possibly come this far we are already too deep in the forest to even think about turning back. All we can do is trudge further into the dark wood and pray that we’ll come out on the other side mostly unscathed.
Our protagonist leaves the forest with plenty of scars, and the final exam of the title that addresses her in the second person reads very much like a self-assessment, a clear-eyed reflection of the woman’s past wherein she forces herself to answer the tough questions of how she could’ve done better by those she loved. The televised images of a reporter being devoured by one of the fish-people may haunt her throughout the story, but most of the guilt that plagues the woman stems from the disengagement she felt as her husband Donald attempted to right the leaning ruins of their relationship.
The global insanity such a monstrous invasion would naturally incur seems almost preferable when compared to the intimate insanity of romantic dissolution. It’s telling that the warmest moment the couple shares during the story is when they lock hands in sympathetic horror as they watch the aforementioned bloody telecast. The rest of the time they spend fighting and drinking and driving each other away straight into oblivion. Donald and his wife are well into the process of being devoured by resentment and apathy long before the fish-creatures arrive to feast on their remains. Like many horror stories, it’s a cruel joke of the cosmic order: My marriage is bust, I’m a raging alcoholic, and I can’t seem to give a damn about any of it. “How could things possibly get worse?” I says. Then the fish-people showed up.
What really elevates the examination-styled format of the story above mere gimmickry is its multiple-choice component. Arkenberg uses this to her distinct advantage, not only building on our appreciation of the narrative’s sequence of events but on our appreciation of the potential sequence of events. The diverse choices the protagonist provides herself with cannily touch upon a key aspect of the human condition, that pontificating part of our brains that stirs us to ask all of the “what-ifs” of life to determine how we could have reached the most ideal outcome and, hopefully, to learn from for future application.
The purpose of the multiple answers actually becomes twofold, as it breaks down the mental barrier we subconsciously place between ourselves and the written work and forces us to consider these “what-ifs” in a metafictional, speculative manner that is a delight to experience. As one of the questions asks, just what do these fish-people actually look like? The dog belonging to the protagonist’s neighbor? The skinny girls who jog around her house? Godzilla? The sea-witch from an old picture book adaptation of the Little Mermaid? The protagonist has her own answers (handily provided in a key at the end of the story), but the reader likely has their own as well. The questions force us to engage intimately with the story and inspire us to actively wonder about it, to think about how we would interpret and react to these events. It’s yet another subtle joke inherent in “Final Exam” that a story concerned with the end of a relationship should kindle such a deep one between the reader and the text. In revealing more of her characters, Arkenberg provides us with the key of revealing a little bit more about ourselves as well.
Just who is getting examined around here anyway?
In the span of fifteen questions, Arkenberg expertly maps out the treacherous byways of the human heart in the efficient and professional cantor of an unflinching proctor. The answer key may not have all the answers, but that’s simply a part of life, of fitting back our sense of normalcy and realizing that we’re still a few pieces short. It’s easy to feel the lines between reality and fiction blur during the reading of “Final Exam”, but should the effect cause you any undue stress by knocking you off your track or upsetting the balance, just keep repeating to yourself one thing: “This is only a test… only a test… only a test…”
It might work for you, or it might not. Your responses will vary.
Asimov’s V. 36 #6 (June 2012)
The Best Horror of the Year: Volume 5 (Nightshade Books, 2013)
Wastelands 2: More Stories of the Apocalypse (Titan Books, 2015)
Jose Cruz is the editor-in-chief of The Haunted Omnibus. He lives in southwest Florida with his wife, their very furry child, and a decent amount of books.