Rated PG-13 for mild language.
There Are No Wrong Answers
by LaShawn M. Wanak
Please select the answer below that feels most comfortable to you. There are no right or wrong answers. Your results will be tallied at the end.
Question one: If you were to arrive at your apartment to find your front door ajar and your chocolate Labrador missing, would you:
- Wander about the apartment complex, tapping a can of Alpo with an opener and calling (softly) “Here, Marti! Here Marti!” Grin sheepishly when the Filipina neighbor across the hall peeks from her apartment, then swear when she slams the door.
- Call the police and argue with the dispatcher. “Of course it’s an emergency, she’s a chocolate lab, dammit. You know how much money I paid for her? Hello? Hello?”
- Screw it. Go fix yourself a margarita because Marti is bound to get bored at some point and come back. Stupid dog.
Lana Hayek was very, very tempted to go with c). But she considered herself a responsible dog owner, and having already completed options a) and b) a few weeks ago, she had an inkling where her dog had gone. She grabbed Marti’s leash.
She stomped the back entrance of her complex, crossed the alley, and pushed open the wrought-iron gate that led to Madame D’s bricked-in garden, resplendent with flowers, a koi pond, and Marti, getting her ears scratched by the garden’s owner.
“Oh, there you are,” Madame D sang in contralto. The purple silk scarf wrapped around his head matched the dress that flowed to his ankles and bared his light brown shoulders, fetchingly. He could have easily passed for a black woman in her early 30s if not for the pencil-thin mustache and the muscular arms. “Marti just came over for a little visit, didn’t you, girl?”
Marti panted in happiness. She was a true chocolate Labrador with a rich coat a couple of shades darker than Lana’s skin. If Marti had the capability to take the Myers-Briggs, she would score high as an extrovert, which could explain her penchant for breaking out whenever she was left alone in the apartment.
“Yes, yes, I’m sorry,” Lana realized she was using her clipped voice she used in job interviews. “I’ll get my landlord to fix that lock.” She didn’t want to appear overly friendly. Bad enough that Madame D looked classier in drag than she did on her best dressed days, but God help her if he started talking about his “profession”. “Come, Marti.”
Marti stubbornly stayed put. Madame D rose to his soft-slippered feet. “Leaving so soon? I have fresh mint. I can make you up some tea.”
Lana gave up. She went over to Marti, snatching at her collar to snap on the leash. “Oh no. Thank you, really, no — ”
“Girl, I’m not gonna bite. You just look a little stressed. We’ll chat, drink tea. Maybe I can do a palm reading . . .”
“Look.” Lana finished snapping the leash on Marti and straightened, placing her hands on her hips. “Let’s get one thing straight right now. I don’t do psychic readings.”
Madame D held up his hands. “Hey, it’s what I do. You pretty much do the same thing.”
“For your information, I assess personalities. That is totally different from making up mumbo-jumbo about the future.”
When Lana was a little girl, she discovered an article in one of her mother’s Ebony magazines: “Is it Love, Lust, Infatuation — or Addiction?”
The questions, the multiple choices, the scores — they drew her in. How could the right number of A’s and B’s add up to love, but a couple of C’s make you a sex tamale? She didn’t know what a sex tamale was, or why people wanted to eat them all the time, but it didn’t matter. The idea that multiple-choice questions could be used to measure innate qualities was fascinating.
She went to college, majored in psychology, studied Jung, attended the Society for Personality Assessment conferences. She discussed the differences between extraversion and introversion, personality theory and measurement, and how the field could adapt to the new Rorschach Scoring system. She practiced assessments on herself and rattled off her scores like baseball stats: 12-94-27-4-43 (OCEAN), ISTJ (Myers-Briggs), Analytical, Input, Strategic, Realtor and Developer (StrengthsFinders).
She had even crafted her own personality test dubbed the LifeMap Matrix, a series of questions meant to produce a snapshot of a person’s psychological profile: likes, dislikes, strengths, weaknesses, obvious characteristics and blinds spots. She had refined them to a set of seventy-five questions — fewer wouldn’t be enough to capture information; more than that made the answers too general.
Question two: You are fresh out of college. You have a personality test you’ve crafted on your own, but it does not pay the bills. You also have a hungry, extroverted dog. What are your options for employment?
- Human Resources in a large corporation.
- A counselor at a job placement agency
- An intake processor at a mental health clinic.
For Lana, so far, it had been “None of the above.” Her résumé returned few results and fewer interviews. Agencies already had enough interns. Corporations weren’t looking to hire. One employer had the audacity to tell her, “Personality assessment is as scientific as a daily horoscope.” Which simply was not true. Her assessments were extrapolated from raw data supplied by the test subject. They weren’t based on supernatural mumbo-jumbo.
Question three: Most employers see your profession as soft pseudo-science. Therefore, what are your real options for employment?
- Online IQ quizzes.
- Fortune cookies.
So when Lana came across the ad for the Ourobouros Staffing Agency, she didn’t care that it appeared on Craigslist. She jumped on that shit.
“You created this yourself?” Maes Francisco didn’t look like the owner of a job placement agency. She appeared to be in her late 20s, had bleached white hair, a nose-ring, and an ornate tattoo of a snake devouring its own tail tucked between her cleavage. When Maes rattled the papers she was holding, Lana jerked her eyes up.
“Oh. Sorry, yes. Just a little thing I did in college, really.”
“Amazing!” Maes said, flipping through the 10-page assessment. “It says: I have smart business skills, I’m money-savvy, and I can make things work. But I also need challenges or else I’d get bored easily. Impressive.”
Pride made Lana warm and tingly all over, though she did her best not to show it. “That’s what makes the LifeMap Matrix stand out from most personality assessments. The idea is to provide a complete profile that shows the applicant what skills they excel in and which skills need improvement.”
Maes tossed the pages on the desk. Lana scrambled to gather them together. “Now that’s the type of resource my agency can use. You see the tattoo?”
Lana stared at Maes’ cleavage. “Um . . .”
“Renewal. That’s what it represents. I want this to be a place where people get a new start on life. A place where they discover their own unlimited potential. Your Matrix Map whatever is just what I need. Let me just get your direct deposit info . . .”
Lana could hardly believe her luck. A chance to use her own assessment tool and get paid for it? It was a dream come true.
Question four: Dreams always come true.
- Damn, this is one of those trick questions, isn’t it?
Ourobouros Staffing Agency
Guaranteed job replacement starting $18/hour
No experience or special skills required
Personalized assessment provided
Within several days of the website going up, applications began trickling in. Lana processed them, administered the test, and brought the applicants into the small office she shared with Maes to go over the results. She also collected fees: background checks, training, uniforms. Even her own assessments had a $50 fee attached to them. She asked Maes if it was right to charge so much.
“You should be charging more,” Maes told her. “A full analysis usually costs, what, two hundred, three hundred dollars? Compared to that, we’re a bargain. Don’t worry about it.”
Money flowed into Lana’s bank account. She bought Marti chew toys. She bought herself a big screen TV. She even said a genuine “Hello” to Madame D when she went out for walks. It was all good.
Until the dreams started.
Carlos Rodriguez’s assessment showed that he had a hardworking personality. He was looking for a job that allowed him to go to management school at night. “Someday, I want to open my own hotel, but I also want it to be like a community center. You know, for people to get connected.”
Lana liked him. He had a nice smile.
That night, she dreamed she sat on a beach, wearing nothing but a bone necklace. She dumped a bag of raw meat on the sand in front of her: hearts and livers and intestines fat as sausages, all stinking to high heaven. As crows and seagulls flew down to peck at the meat, the blood that sank into the sand squiggled together to form a picture of an elevator.
Carlos, much older and grayer, stood next to a cart of laundry. He looked up, directly into her face, and growled. “Why didn’t you call back? I waited and waited. But you never called me back.”
“I never knew I was supposed to,” Lana said.
“My cousin got me into this hotel, but only for the night shift. I work at another hotel during the day. Neither gives me enough to make ends meet. Thanks for nothing.”
He reached into the cart and flung dirty underwear at her until she woke up.
Ellen Cartwright wanted a work-at-home job so she could remain with her kids. “Oh, I love these types of tests. My church group just finished taking the Love Languages quiz and I learned so much from it.”
“That’s because of the language,” Lana said. “The results you get from those tests are generic enough that they could apply to anybody. Horoscopes work the same way.”
Ellen stared at her. “I don’t believe in horoscopes. The Bible says they’re from the devil.” She glanced down at her assessment. “But this, though: you are truthful and caring to a fault. Oh, my goodness, that is so me!”
That night, Lana dreamed of being in a cave. She broke a chicken’s neck with her bare hands and tossed it into a cauldron of boiling water. She tossed in oak leaves, willow branches, hawthorn bark and roots from a dead elm. When the water turned murky brown, she picked up the cauldron and drank it down: water, chicken, and all, until nothing was left at the bottom but sludge.
She swirled the sludge with a birch staff, and it formed a picture of Ellen Cartwright, a screaming baby on her hip, yelling as several men in gray uniforms carried off her new refrigerator.
“It was supposed to be legitimate. How was I to know?” She pointed a sludgy finger at Lana. “You took all my money, and now they’re repossessing my stuff! YOUR LOVE LANGUAGE IS FULL OF SUCK!”
Lana began to hate the nights.
She dreamed of conducting séances. She dreamed of tossing I Ching. She dreamed of searching the Torah for hidden messages. She dreamed of chewing laurel leaves and raging in Greek hexameter. She dreamed of shaking bones, wax drippings, earthworm trails. She dreamed of gazing into stars, fires, mirrors, feng shui compasses, cootie-catchers.
And each time, someone who had taken her assessment would stare back, miserable and poor, accusing her of taking their money, of not calling them back. Of ruining their lives.
Question five: You know what’s happening to Lana, don’t you?
- The hell with that; go back to Maes’s tattoo.
Madame D was escorting an older woman from his backyard as Lana arrived with Marti in tow. “Now, you just remember what I told you, Mrs. Lawrence, and drink that tea twice a day. Oh, and here — ” He pressed a small card into the woman’s hand. Lana caught a glimpse of “. . . Rosa, Psychic Advisor” before the woman tucked it in her purse. “To give to your friends,” he said with a wink.
“Oh, thank you.” The woman traipsed passed Lana, pausing to pat Marti on the head. “Oh, he’s good, dearie. Definitely worth the tip.”
“Well, hello there,” Madame D smiled. Today he wore a ruffled floral blouse, a black sheath skirt, a large amaryllis tucked behind one ear, and a long strand of pearls. “Haven’t seen you in a while.”
“Been a little busy,” Lana glanced up and down the alley to make sure no one was watching. “Say . . . you do dreams, right?”
“Sometimes.” Madame D peered into Lana’s face. “Been having some bad nights?”
“Well . . . I . . . that is — ”
The next thing she knew, Lana was sitting on a bench in Madame D’s garden, a cup of mint tea in her hands. Madame D sat beside her, ankles demurely crossed, nodding every once in a while as Lana spilled her dreams out to him. Marti wandered along the flowerbeds, ignoring the both of them.
“Something’s bothering you about your job,” Madame D said, rubbing a finger against his thin mustache. “If you want me to put it in terms you can understand, I would say your subconscious is trying to tell you to quit.”
“But it took me so long just to find this job. I can’t give it up now.”
Madame D gave a languorous shrug. “There are other jobs. You can do what I do. Have a day job, then do the assessment thing in the evenings. In fact, I think you would make a great psychic adviser. It doesn’t pay much, but . . .”
“Me? A psychic advisor? Come on. Be serious.”
“No, listen. In your dreams you’re using different scrying techniques to see into people’s futures. I don’t know if those futures are true — I can only see the future every once in a great while — but if they are, that may be a sign you’re becoming a powerful seer.”
“But I don’t want to be a seer,” Lana cried. “They’re all fake, like you — ”
She clapped a hand to her mouth. Madame D froze. For a moment, both sat silent. On the other side of the garden, Marti nosed a patch of pansies and sneezed.
Then Madame D let out a long breath. “Give me your hand.”
“I’m sorry . . . I didn’t mean — ”
“Give me your hand,” he said, and if Lana wasn’t intimidated by his sternness, it was the way the pearls bumped against his chest. He thrust out a pink-brown palm. Hesitantly, she laid hers on top. He turned it over, studying her palm in silence, then traced it with a fingertip, the touch so light it tickled her skin.
“You’re afraid that if you lose this job,” he said, “you’ll have to move back home.”
Lana’s mouth dropped open.
He tilted her hand. “You grew up in the church, but you don’t go because you don’t believe in it anymore.” Another tilt. “You don’t have many friends. You’re fine with that. But you still get lonely.” One more tilt. “You’re uncomfortable by the way I dress. You’re dying to ask me about it, but you’re too scared to.” He glanced up at her. “That sound like you?”
It took Lana a long time to speak. “Yeah. But how — ”
“Observation, mostly. You’re young, I’m guessing straight out of college. The way you’re hanging on to this job — if it falls through, you probably would have to move back with your folks. And honey, everyone’s afraid of that. I’m also thinking at least one of your parents is a believer, which ties into your fear of moving back home. You have all the Christian biases, but you’re also a skeptic. You walk Marti on Sunday mornings, so you don’t go to church.”
Lana nodded. “My father made us go to church. I stopped in college, though I go to evening service every now and then.”
“Most people get dogs when they’re lonely. Also, I can see your apartment from here. Usually you’re just watching TV, so not many friends. And the remark about me?” He grinned. “That was just a hunch.”
He released her hand, which disappointed Lana. It had felt . . . nice. “Being a seer isn’t just about seeing the future. I don’t see myself as a soothsayer — I’m more of a truthsayer. Yeah, some people need the hand-waving and mumbo-jumbo, but for others, they just want direction. I help them find it, just like your tests. We’re mirrors, you and I. We point out truth to those who can’t see it, or are just unwilling to.”
Something wet and snuffly nudged Lana’s hand. She reached down to scratch Marti’s head. “I guess I never saw it that way.”
He winked at her. “I gave you that one for free.”
Maybe Madame D was right. Maybe her dreams were telling her something she was unwilling to admit to herself. After all, she never really knew what happened to the applicants after she passed their paperwork on to Maes. Lana had always assumed that Maes found jobs for them, and everyone was happy.
She should ask Maes about it. Tomorrow.
Lana went to bed and had her first good night’s sleep in weeks.
The next day, she went into work and found not Maes, but cops with an arrest warrant with Lana’s name on it.
At the police station, Lana learned some interesting things about Maes Francisco.
There had never been an Ourobouros Staffing Agency.
Most of the glowing testimonies on the agency’s website were fictitious.
Maes Francisco operated under a number of names: Mary Francisco, May Frank, and Mabel French. She was wanted in New York, Ohio, and Indiana for identity theft, fraud, and operating a job placement agency without a license.
She charged outrageous fees for services normally provided for free, collected social security numbers and bank details, and told applicants she would call when she found employment for them. She never did. A few applicants persisted in following up — Maes sent them addresses where she said people were hiring. The addresses were fake.
She had several bank accounts under different aliases. When she caught wind of her impending arrest, she erased her computer and voice mail, burned her paper files, and wiped out her bank accounts. Every single one.
Question six: Who also had her bank account wiped out?
When Madame D came to get her at the station, Lana didn’t recognize him at first. He wore a dirty gray jumpsuit with a patch on his chest that read “Sanitation.” A walkie-talkie sat on his hip. When he signed her out, he wrote his name as “Delevan Antony Rosa.”
“You’re a garbageman?” Lana said incredulously.
“I told you being a reader advisor doesn’t pay much.”
The walkie-talkie chirped. “Hey, Dev, when you coming back?”
He spoke into it, “Naw, man. I got a friend who needs my help. Gonna take care of her for a while.”
Lana burst into tears.
Delevan Antony Rosa drove her to his parlor. Lana had been in his garden numerous times, but had never stepped foot in his parlor itself. The front entrance was sunken, with a neon pink “READER ADVISOR” flashing in the picture window. The parlor itself was small, with two soft chairs and a short table between them. He sat her down and disappeared up the stairs.
Pink and mauve cloth adorned the walls. It made Lana think of wombs. On the wall by her, three portraits of three women in elaborate hats, bearing strong resemblance to Delevan Antony Rosa, stared at her. A closer look revealed that one of them was actually a man.
When Delevan Antony Rosa came back down, he was Madame D again, dressed in a silk gray shirt and trousers, a cleaner, more feminine version of his uniform. It made Lana feel more at ease; it had been discombobulating to see him dressed as a man. He brewed up some tea. “Drink up. You’ll feel better.”
Lana drank as he sat in the opposite chair. “You were right.”
“It was my fault. I should’ve done something sooner. I just didn’t know.” She took another gulp of tea.
“All my money is gone. No one will want to hire me. One look at my résumé and they’ll say, ‘You helped a known felon. We can’t trust you.’ And you know what? They’ll be right. I’ll be the laughingstock of the whole psychiatric community.”
She buried her face in her hands. Madame D let her cry, then gave her a tissue to blow her nose.
“So then,” he said. “What are you going to do?”
Lana balled the tissue into her fist. “Teach me how to see into Maes’s future.”
Madame D blinked. “Um, the future’s not an app on the phone you can just punch up.”
“But you said I can see the future, right? What use is it if it just happens at random?”
“Here’s the thing. It only works if you have the appropriate focus. I can show you how to use tarot cards, but it doesn’t give you insight into a person if they’re not there. You’d need something to help you focus on Maes as a person, otherwise, you’ll be casting blind.”
Lana thought for a moment. She drained the tea and got to her feet. “I think I got just the thing.”
Lana still had Maes Francisco’s original personality assessment. She had meant to use it to refine the LifeMap Matrix after Maes gave it back to her. Instead, she had stashed it in a file cabinet in her closet, and forgot about it. Until now.
Now she dug it out and brought it back, along with Marti, to Madame D’s parlor. She spread the papers out on his table. “Okay, now what? Do I need to take something to make me fall asleep or — ”
Madame D let Marti lick his face. “Hell if I know. I say do what feels natural to you and see what happens.”
Lana nodded, took a deep breath, and started reading.
She didn’t know what to expect at first. She shuffled the assessment into different categories, laid aside those that had the same answers. She turned some of the papers upside down, held the papers at eye level, trying to find a hidden pattern in the circles Maes had marked off.
Then she read the answers Maes had given. Knowing what she knew of Maes now, she saw a very different personality emerge. Maes indeed had savvy business and money-making skills. But that should have served as a warning, had Lana chosen to read it that way. The more Lana read the questions, the more she saw the real Maes Francisco: an edgy, arrogant con artist pushing to see how far she could go.
Intrigued, Lana became lost in the details. It was all so fascinating, so much so that when she rested her eyes and found herself in an endless hallway lined with closed doors, she wasn’t really surprised.
Lana turned. Down the hallway, something rose, flipped, and settled back down on the floor with a soft snick. Lana glanced down. Nothing to see but the ornate floral pattern of the carpet, separated into giant square patches almost like the backs of playing cards.
No — they really were the backs of playing cards, flipping into the air face-up by themselves. Lana pressed against the wall and waited until the cards in front of her flipped over. They all displayed Maes wearing a cowled robe, holding a staff or a scroll with the words “The Magician” scrawled above her head. Lana followed the cards as they flipped, one by one, until the last one stopped in front of a closed door. Lana opened it.
It showed a room looking out over a city skyline at night. Lana thought she recognized the Space Needle in the distance. Large mirrors decorated the walls, each showing a different city skyline. Maes Francisco came out of another door, wearing a bathrobe and rubbing her now inky-black hair with a towel. “Oh, it’s you. Go away.”
“You cheated me,” Lana said. “I want my money back.”
“Get in line.” Maes stepped up to one of the mirrors. Her reflection, bleach-blonde, crossed its eyes and poked out its tongue. “Lots of people looking for me. You’re just the latest dupe.”
“How could you?”
“Hey, hard times are everywhere. I’m just looking to make a buck, same as everyone else.” Another reflection of Maes appeared in another mirror, this time with brown hair and glasses. It pulled a bouquet of flowers from its sleeve and began eating them, first plucking petals off one by one, then devouring the heads whole.
“But why?” Lana asked. “You could’ve done some real good.”
Maes tweaked Lana’s chin. “Poor, poor Lana. True, I could’ve done some good, but where’s the fun in that?” A third reflection appeared, red-haired and very pale. Several dogs trotted in after it, one of them resembling Marti, right down to her golden eyes. The dogs rose on their hind legs and hopped in circles while the reflection produced a tuba and began playing it.
Maes — the real one — put on a top hat and pulled out a wand, waving it towards the mirrors like a conductor. “Besides, look at your wonderful Matrix Map Life, or whatever the hell you call it. People want you to tell them what they want to be in nice, flowery, positive language. Of course we are all good and hard-working and make excellent employees. No one wants to hear that they’re lazy, unmotivated slobs. It’s all one big scam, really.”
“It’s only a scam if you think of it as such.” Lana edged towards the room’s desk. On it she found a pen and hotel stationary. Maes ignored her, bending her wand until the two ends joined into a loop. She pressed her top hat together to form another loop.
“Don’t get me wrong,” Maes said as Lana moved to the room’s door. “The assessments you do really are good. If anything, those people got a better view of themselves, and hey, maybe they’ll use those tests to get actual jobs. If they don’t learn something about themselves, then it’s their own fault, not mine.”
Lana noted the fire plan plaque at the back of the door and wrote what she saw down. “So you’ll just keep on scamming people. You’re not going to change?”
Maes barked a laugh. “Oh, please. You’re not really talking to me. This is just a way for your brain to deal with the whole seeing process.” She began to juggle her loops. In the mirrors, the reflection-Maes also started juggling. Globes of fire. Swords and sticks bent into circles. The red-haired reflection even juggled the dogs, who had curled themselves into balls, biting their own tails. “Learn to read between the answers, Lana. It’ll help you become a true seer.”
“Not if it’s as weird as this,” Lana groused. “How can I become a seer if I keep getting this symbolism crap?”
The Marti in the mirror released her tail and spoke. “Look, I did my part to get you to believe in this stuff. Throw me a bone, here.”
Lana stared. “What?”
“I said, bark!”
Lana blinked and found herself in Madame D’s parlor. Madame D played solitaire with his tarot cards. At his feet, Marti gave another sleepy bark, then lowered her head to the floor.
Lana looked down. On Maes’s assessment, Lana had written in large, loopy letters: Seattle Grand Hyatt, Room 36. Black hair, new name Myra Hendricks.
“No offense,” she said, “but this creeps me out.”
“Oh, honey,” Madame D replied. “I’ve been doing this for twenty years and it still creeps the hell out of me.”
You like to do things according to the rules. Everything must be by-the-book. If all the proper choices are made, Lana will have a happy ending. Maes goes to jail, all the people get their money back. Perhaps Lana will open a psychotherapy clinic while spending her nights hunting down criminals with the mysterious Madame D. You like your endings tidy. Too bad this isn’t one of them.
Mostly B’s: Life does not fit all. You know this, because you’re a realist. It’s perfectly possible that Lana could go to Seattle; she could even track down Maes to the correct hotel. But for some reason, Maes gets away scot-free. Perhaps Lana wimps out at the last minute. Or she’s too busy dealing with getting sued by Maes’s former clients. It doesn’t matter — you just can’t see Lana having a happy ending. People will call you a cynic, but don’t listen to them. You are rational, clear-minded, and you know you’re right.
You should seriously consider going into politics.
Why are you even reading this? You’ve probably skipped all the way to the ending just because you felt like it. Or maybe you’re looking for a bonus scene of Lana and Maes getting it on with Madame D. You refuse to be defined by labels. You make up your own rules. And you call bullshit on this whole format.
You want to know why you should care about Lana. You want to know the real ending.
To find out, please convert the above text into Sanskrit, then write out every thirteenth letter. Do this under the light of a full moon, on goatskin parchment with ink made of dried rose petals and blood. Do this, and not just Lana’s future will be revealed, but also yours, and the secrets of the universe.
Remember. There are no wrong answers.
About the Author
About the Narrators
Jen Albert is an entomologist, writer, editor, narrator, game-player, cosplayer, streamer, reader of All The Things, and haver of far too many hobbies.
Jen somehow became co-editor of her favorite fantasy fiction podcast; she now wonders if she’s still allowed to call it her favorite. She works full-time as an editor and lives in Toronto with her very large, very hairy German Shepherd.
Khaalidah Muhammad-Ali lives in Houston, Texas, with her husband and three children. By day she works as a breast oncology nurse. At all other times she juggles, none too successfully, writing, reading, gaming, and gardening. She has written one novel entitled An Unproductive Woman available on Amazon. She has also been published in or has stories upcoming in Escape Pod, Diabolical Plots, and FIYAH. Khaalidah also co-edits podcastle.org where she is on a mission to encourage more women to submit fantasy stories. Of her alter ego, K from the planet Vega, it is rumored that she owns a time machine and knows the secret to long youth. She can be found online at http://khaalidah.com and on Twitter at @khaalidah.