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98th Percentile

                She wanted to hang up before he said it. She was already fired, she didn’t owe her supervisor – former supervisor – the courtesy of hearing him out. But, as always, there was also some sick part of her that wanted to hear it.

               “I’m sad it turned out this way,” he said. “I really thought it would work out. You have so much potential.”

               There it was. Jillian hung up. She dropped her phone onto her nightstand where it bounced off the base of the lamp and fell to the floor. Jillian didn’t retrieve it. With her day now free of responsibilities, she dozed for another two hours. She awoke from a dream neither good nor bad, got dressed, and drove to her parents’ house for a lunchtime drop-in.

               Jillian’s mother Mara was a stout woman who always wore sandals. She said her toes needed to breathe. She got her hair done every Tuesday. Since today was Monday, it was in its least put-together state. “We’re having leftovers,” said Mara. “I don’t know if there’s enough for you.”

               “That’s fine,” said Jillian. “I can find something in the pantry.” As she followed her mother down the hall from the front door to the kitchen, Jillian watched her own face age from toddlerhood through her late teenage years in the framed photographs hanging on the wall. Her parents’ only child. Not a single portrait was flattering.

               Abel, Jillian’s adoptive father, sat at the kitchen table blowing on a re-heated plate of shepherd’s pie. He wasn’t a farmer, had never been a farmer, but he dressed like one. He wasn’t tall, but his limbs were disproportionately long. He lost contact lenses more than any other person Jillian knew. A second steaming plate of shepherd’s pie rested on the table in front of the empty chair across from him. “Hi, Jillian,” he said. “Why aren’t you at work?”

               Standing at the refrigerator, Mara made a noise in her throat.

               “Guess,” said Jillian. She took an unclaimed spot at the table.

               “Fired again?” asked Abel.

               Mara made another noise, similar to the first, as she loaded a third plate of shepherd’s pie into the microwave. There were more than enough leftovers to go around.

               “Yes,” said Jillian. “Fired.”

               “What was it this time?” asked Abel.

               “Nothing spectacular,” said Jillian. “I called to tell them I couldn’t motivate myself to come in today and my supervisor told me not to bother coming in ever again.”

               “Hmm,” said Abel. “Probably wasn’t the first time you made that call, was it?”

               “Nope,” said Jillian.

               The microwave beeped and Mara carried Jillian’s plate of food to the table. She seemed to be carrying the plate very comfortably, her hands untroubled by the temperature of the dish. The food was not steaming. That beep had come pretty early.

               “Did he say it?” asked Abel. A grim smile appeared.

               “Of course,” said Jillian. She laughed.

               “There’s nothing funny about it,” said Mara, taking her seat. She began to eat.

               “I didn’t say there was,” said Abel.

               “But you were smiling,” said Mara after she swallowed. “And that made her laugh. You give her permission to not take it seriously, Abel.”

               “I don’t need permission,” said Jillian. “I’m 27 years old.”

               “With nothing to show for it,” said Mara. “It’s pitiful, Jillian.”

               “You think I should be successful just by virtue of being 27?” asked Jillian.

               “You’re not just any 27-year-old woman,” said Mara.

               Jillian turned to Abel and winked. “She’s gonna say it.”

Abel suppressed his reaction with a spoonful of shepherd’s pie straight in the mouth.

“So what if I am?” said Mara. “Maybe it’ll get through to you someday.”

               “Or maybe it’ll just mean that much less to me the next time I hear it.”

               “I don’t care,” said Mara. “I’m going to say it again. For my sake.”

               “Oh, for your sake this time,” said Jillian. “What a big change from the usual.”

               “You have so much potential,” said Mara. “And you’re wasting it.”

               “It’s strange,” said Jillian. She chewed her shepherd’s pie. Lukewarm. Cold in the middle. “Sometimes I get this rush of anticipation when someone’s about to say it. And then they say it and I feel nothing. It just fizzles.”

               “That doesn’t mean it isn’t true,” said Abel, re-establishing his position alongside her mother. “Just because people say it a lot. Maybe people say it a lot because it is true.”

               “Maybe,” said Jillian. “But I’d prefer some evidence.”

               “Evidence of what?” asked Mara.

               “My potential,” said Jillian. “I’ve been hearing about it since I can remember, but where did it come from? My grades were bad from kindergarten on. I couldn’t play an instrument, I wasn’t an athlete, I couldn’t draw, I didn’t like books. Why did anyone ever think I had potential?”

               “Because you do,” said Mara. “Everyone can see it except you, apparently. Maybe that’s your problem.”

               “What is?” asked Jillian.

               “You don’t see your own potential so you don’t expect anything of yourself.”

               “Well,” said Jillian. “Like I said. Where’s the evidence?”

               “Like that would make a difference,” said Mara. “You’ve already decided to fail. You’re committed to failure.”

               “So there’s none,” said Jillian. “No evidence. That’s what I thought.”

               “Maybe you should show it to her,” said Abel.

               “It won’t make a difference,” said Mara. “She’ll come up with some reason to shoot it down.”

               “Show me what?” asked Jillian. She set a spoonful of shepherd’s pie that was nine tenths of the way to her mouth back on her plate with a light clink sound.

               “It’s not the only reason I think you have potential, Jillian,” said Mara. “It’s not even the main reason. The main reason is because I can see the potential in you just like everyone else can, but even more so because I’m your mom.”

               “But maybe…” said Abel.

               “Yes, yes,” said Mara, cutting him off. “Maybe it made me look for the potential earlier, maybe it made me more sensitive to signs.”

               “What did?” asked Jillian.

               “I’ve always been reluctant to show you,” said Mara. “Because you’re going to fixate on it. You’re going to think of it as the source of your problems. You’re going to doubt it and criticize it.”

               “Now I have to see it,” said Jillian.

               “See, Abel?” said Mara. “She’s already fixating.”

               “She’s just curious because you’re being so cryptic,” said Abel. He scooted his chair back from the table and stood, his napkin falling unnoticed from his lap to the tile floor. “Come on. Let’s dig it out.”

               “I guess,” said Mara, “it can’t make things any worse.” She stood, too. Her napkin fell on the floor, too.

               Jillian was the last to stand. Her napkin remained on the table where she’d left it.


               Mara rummaged through the basement storage room while Jillian and Abel waited outside. The storage room was large, spreading under the stairs and behind the walls, but the walking paths that ran through the accumulated stuff were narrow, and Mara was the only one who knew where anything was.

               “You’ve seen this?” asked Jillian. “Whatever Mom’s looking for in there?”

               “No,” said Abel. He kept his voice low. “But your mom mentions it from time to time. It’s more important to her than she’s admitting.”

               Jillian looked around her at her parents’ recent basement updates. The carpet was new. Dark, this time, to hide inevitable spill stains. The TV was new. A screen five inches larger than the previous TV’s screen. The lights overhead were recessed, now, and the ceiling’s popcorn texture was smoothed away. The changes made her a little sad, but the familiar basement smell lurking beneath the changes comforted her, the rising dankness that would always be the dominant power in the basement.

               Mara emerged from the storage room holding a yellowed piece of paper. “I found it.”

               “That’s it?” asked Jillian. “That’s what you were looking for? This is the evidence of my potential?”

               “No,” said Mara, holding the paper out of Jillian’s reach. “This is not the evidence of your potential. This is confirmation that a doctor saw your immense potential when you were a newborn, and he calculated it scientifically.”

               “Let me see it,” said Jillian. She held out her hand.

               Mara hesitated on the verge of fleeing back into the storage room and squirreling her precious paper away inside whatever buried box in which she’d found it. But she gave it to Jillian.

               The paper – the document – didn’t look very official. It looked as if it had been printed off of someone’s home computer. In the top right corner of the document were the words “Page 1 of 2.” Jillian read aloud from the text in the middle of the page. “Weight: 80th percentile. Length: 70th percentile.”

               “You were big,” said Mara. “A big baby.”

               Jillian scanned through the remaining data. “Here it is. ‘Potential: 98th percentile.’”

               “There you go,” said Mara. “That means 98 percent of people have less potential than you. You’re in the top two percent when it comes to potential.”

               Jillian turned the paper over as if there might be further explanation on the back. “This is it? Where’s the second page?”

               “No!” said Mara, snatching the paper from her daughter’s hand. “I told you this isn’t it. This is just supporting confirmation from a doctor of what I already knew and still know!”

               Jillian laughed, dry and disbelieving. “But Mom, that makes no sense. How could a doctor possibly measure potential in a newborn as if it were the same thing as length or weight?”

               “He knew how,” said Mara. “He was an expert. It was very scientific and medically sound.”

               “How would you know?” asked Jillian. “You’re not an expert. You’re not a scientist or a doctor.”

               “I knew I shouldn’t have shown it to her,” said Mara, turning on Abel.

               Abel looked from his wife to his adopted daughter, the apology on his face appearing to apply to both of them equally.

               “Who was this doctor?” asked Jillian. “Was this my regular doctor?”

               “No,” said Mara. “He had a private practice here in Multioak. He was a specialist. Very highly recommended by people I trusted very much.”

               “Like who?” asked Jillian.

               “Friends at the time,” said Mara. “You don’t remember them.”

               “What was the doctor’s name?” asked Jillian. “Is he still around?”

               “He retired,” said Mara. “Years ago. Leave him alone, Jillian. You don’t need to bother an old man just so you can try to discredit him in order to convince yourself that your failures aren’t your fault.”

               “That’s not why I’m asking,” said Jillian.

               Mara went back into the storage room, closing and locking the door behind her so Jillian couldn’t follow her to see where the paper was stored.

               “His name was Dr. Hogarth,” whispered Abel. “That’s what your mom has always called him. I don’t know his first name. Don’t tell your mom I told you. I’m only telling you because maybe this quest will help you, somehow. Maybe it will give you peace, or –”

               Mara burst out of the storage room. “Aha! Abel, you told her, didn’t you!”

               “No,” said Jillian.

               “Yes,” said Abel. “Sorry.” His face carried enough apology for everyone.


               He was alive. He still lived in Multioak. His house was large and out of date. The trees on his front lawn were enormous, unnaturally healthy. No tree should be so strong. They were begging to be felled, Jillian thought, as she drove through the open gate and parked in a roundabout surrounding a barren flowerbed.

               The wraparound porch was deep, the front door had probably never felt direct sunlight since the day it was installed. Jillian rang the doorbell. It warbled through the house.

               When the door opened, there was the doctor himself clad in a white robe that looked a bit like a lab coat. Perhaps intentional? Sort of funny, if so. Jillian knew the man was Dr. Hogarth because he said so immediately, unprompted. “I’m Dr. Hogarth, how can I help you?” His hair was dull white. He had a piece of cotton wadded into his left ear.

               “I was a baby,” said Jillian. A stupid way to begin.

               Dr. Hogarth didn’t seem put off.

               “You told my mother I was in the 98th percentile for potential,” said Jillian. “I wanted to talk to you about that.”

               “You’re Jillian Mae Pixon?” asked Dr. Hogarth.

               “Did my mom call you and tell you I was looking for you?” asked Jillian.

               “No,” said Dr. Hogarth. “I only ever calculated one newborn’s potential in that range. Jillian Mae Pixon. None of the others were even close.”

               “That’s what I want to talk to you about,” said Jillian.

               “You’re her?” Dr. Hogarth fumbled in the deep pockets of his robe with both hands.

               “That’s my name, yes,” said Jillian. “I want to talk to you about your methods. How you arrived at the number.”

               “98th percentile,” said Dr. Hogarth.  

               “How is it possible to figure that?” asked Jillian. “With a newborn, I mean. They can’t even talk yet.”

               “I can’t explain the process to you in words you would understand,” said Dr. Hogarth.

               “Try,” said Jillian.

               “No,” said Dr. Hogarth.

               “You’ve done real damage to me,” said Jillian.

               “How so?”

               “My mom’s expectations for me were too high because of you,” said Jillian. “She was always telling me how much potential I had. It messed me up.”

               “Messed you up how?” asked Dr. Hogarth.

               “I don’t know,” said Jillian. “It just did.”

               “You haven’t been as successful as your mother hoped based on my findings?”

               “I haven’t been successful at all,” said Jillian.

               “Not successful at all?” asked Dr. Hogarth. “That can’t be right.”

               “My mom says it’s because I’ve decided not to live up to my potential,” said Jillian. “She thinks I’ve chosen to fail.”

               “No, no, no,” said Dr. Hogarth. He shook his head. “My calculations of potential account for that. It’s impossible for someone in the 98th percentile for potential to choose failure. The 98th percentile is beyond the threshold where choosing failure is an option. Circumstances can, of course, interfere. For example, if you had been struck by lightning, wrongfully convicted of a crime you didn’t commit, or sustained brain damage as the result of inhaling a toxic chemical. Then, yes, you might fail to reach your potential. Or even in less extreme cases, you might fail to reach your full potential. You might only be more successful than, say, 85% of the population. But to not be successful at all, even if you’re exaggerating somewhat, no.”

               “OK,” said Jillian. “Well, I’m a failure. So you were wrong, then. I don’t have that much potential.”

               “Wrong?” said Dr. Hogarth. “No, I was not wrong. If you are Jillian Mae Pixon and you have truly not been even moderately successful, then the most likely explanation is that your potential was drained from you.”

               “Drained from me?” asked Jillian. “How is that possible? How could my potential be drained from me? Drained by who?”

               Dr. Hogarth pulled his hands from his pockets. They were empty. He clasped them in front of the knot in the sash holding his robe closed. “I instructed your mother, when she brought you to me for evaluation, as to how she could avoid draining your potential from you. Since yours was so high, I put extra emphasis on this instruction. I gave her the instruction in writing. If she did not heed my instruction, then your potential may have been drained from you.”

               “By her,” said Jillian.

               “Yes,” said Dr. Hogarth.

               “What was the instruction?” asked Jillian. “What did you tell her to do to avoid draining my potential?”

               “I told her not to hang framed photographs of you in the hallways of her home,” said Dr. Hogarth.

               Jillian felt a surge of bitter vindication. “She did that!”

               Dr. Hogarth shook his head. “I told her not to. I told her how rare so much potential was.”

               Reasoned skepticism caught up with Jillian’s outrage. “But how could that drain my potential?” she asked. “How could hanging framed photographs in a hall have such a big effect?”

               “I can’t explain that to you in words that you would understand either,” said Dr. Hogarth,

               “I don’t see how I can believe any of this,” said Jillian.

               “Then don’t,” said Dr. Hogarth. “I already made my money. I’m retired.”

               “But just so we’re clear,” said Jillian. “No matter what I think, you believe that it’s my mom’s fault that I haven’t come close to realizing my initial potential?”

               “Hmm,” said Dr. Hogarth. “Well, you might be right on track in terms of realizing your current potential. But yes, I think your inability to realize the potential you were born with is due to your mother’s refusal to abide by my simple instructions. She could have hung those pictures in the living room, for example, and there would have been no problem. Or a bedroom. A den, even, an office, a kitchen. Really anywhere except a hallway.”

               “They’re all in a hallway,” said Jillian. “They’re only in a hallway.”

               “I’m not trying to start family drama,” said Dr. Hogarth. “But that seems a little fishy to me.”

               Jillian said goodbye. Dr. Hogarth receded into his house like a tongue into a mouth. His trees moaned their longing to topple as Jillian scurried back to her car beneath their ponderous limbs.


               Jillian left her car parked crooked across the middle of her parents’ driveway. Mara and Abel were in the basement enjoying its updates. The recessed lights in the ceiling were dimmed. Plastic bottles of sparkling water occupied the new sectional sofa’s built-in cup holders. On the TV was a documentary about an unsolved crime from the town where Abel grew up. The crime wasn’t very serious, but the town’s name was “Virtue City” so the whole show teetered atop that bit of dramatic irony.

               “I found him,” said Jillian from the foot of the stairs.

               Mara looked worried. Abel paused their show.

               “Where’s page 2, Mom? Where’s the part about not draining my potential?”

               “You don’t believe that,” said Mara, squeezing one of the new pillows on her lap.

               “But you do!” said Jillian. “And you did it anyway! Those pictures have been in the hall upstairs for as long as I can remember! You could have hung them anywhere else, but you chose to hang them there!”

               “I didn’t believe that part,” said Mara. “About the pictures in the hallway. It made no sense.”

Abel looked down at the remote as if memorizing the location of each button for future low-light usage.

None of it makes sense,” said Jillian. “But why would you believe one part and not the other? It’s all from the same source!”

“Oh, Jillian,” said Mara. “You’ll probably never own a home so you won’t understand this, but one of the main things I liked about this house when we first looked at it – this was before I was pregnant, before I kicked your birth dad out – but when I saw it, I right away knew that I wanted to hang my kids’ pictures in that hallway. Nice, framed portraits. Arranged just like they are, from youngest to oldest so whenever I walk to the kitchen I can see you grow up. But when I leave the kitchen, it’s like you’re aging in reverse, you’re turning into a little girl again. Of course, it would have been nice if the pictures had turned out better. I don’t know why you never have a good smile in a picture. Or when your smile is nice, something else goes wrong.”

“So you thought it was worth draining my potential away because you didn’t want to change your decorating idea?” asked Jillian.

“No,” said Mara. “I didn’t want to change my decorating idea for the sake of some superstitious warning that I didn’t believe in.”

“Well, I never want to hear about my potential again,” said Jillian. “You’ve lost all credibility. Either it was all a scam to begin with or else you did the one thing Dr. Hogarth told you not to do, and now I don’t have any potential left. Either way, you’ve got no room to criticize me.”

Mara rose, still clutching the pillow to her stomach. She made her way around the far side of the sectional sofa, squeezing through a narrow gap between an arm rest and the wall. The sofa was too big for the space. Jillian’s parents had overdone it. When Mara reached Jillian, she dropped the pillow on the floor and took her daughter by the shoulders. “Your potential is not drained, Jillian. You have just as much as you ever had. Your potential has not been drained by the framed photos of you hanging in the hallway or anything else. You’re still in the 98th percentile, I know it. I can see it, and so can everyone else.”

“Dr. Hogarth couldn’t see it,” said Jillian. “We had a whole conversation. He had plenty of time to observe me and he still said I’d probably been drained.”

“He depends on his scientific methods for everything,” said Mara. “He can’t see anything unless it’s been calculated.”

               “How do you know?” asked Jillian. “You haven’t seen him in years.”

               “I know the type,” said Mara.

               “Then let’s test me again,” said Jillian. “Let’s go back to his house and have him calculate my current potential.”

               “That’s not necessary,” said Mara. There were three evenly spaced beads of sweat on her top lip.

               “You’re nervous,” said Jillian. “You’re afraid of what he’ll find. You’re afraid he’ll find out I’m completely empty of potential and you’ll have to accept what you did. Or accept that he was always a fraud.”

               Mara stooped to pick up the dropped pillow. She turned and tossed it toward the sofa. It fell short. “All right,” she said. “Let’s go see him.”


               The trees in Dr. Hogarth’s yard had grown in the two hours since she’d last seen them, Jillian was sure of it.

               “He did well for himself,” said Mara, taking in the size of Dr. Hogarth’s house. It was the first thing she’d said since commenting on the messiness of Jillian’s car as she got in.

               When Dr. Hogarth answered the door, he sighed and said, “I did not want to start family drama. I made that clear to you, Jillian, didn’t I?” He wore a gray suit with a lot of extra room in it. Had he recently lost weight? His feet were bare. How often do you see someone in a suit with bare feet? Rarely, for sure.

               “We have to settle this,” said Jillian. “My mom is convinced my potential hasn’t been drained.”

               Dr. Hogarth sighed. “Ma’am, I assure you, if this is Jillian Mae Pixon, her potential has been drained. No one in the 98th percentile for potential could fail to the extent that she claims she has failed.”

               “She still has every drop of potential she had when she was a baby,” said Mara.

               “If that’s what you prefer to believe, then that’s fine,” said Dr. Hogarth. “I need to put socks on, now. And shoes.” He rippled his toes on the mat inside his front door.

               “I need you to test me again,” said Jillian.

               Dr. Hogarth let his head fall back. The piece of cotton fell from his left ear. “I knew it would come to this.”

               “We’ll pay you,” said Jillian.

               “We?” asked Mara. “You’re the one who wants the test. I already have all the answers I need.”

               “I’m already behind on my rent,” said Jillian. “I really don’t want to get evicted again.”

               Dr. Hogarth and Mara exchanged a look of shared disapproval.

               “If you promise to leave me alone, I’ll do it for free,” said Dr. Hogarth. “The test for potential isn’t very labor intensive. The devices do most of the work.”

               “What do I need to do?” asked Jillian.

               “Wait here,” said Dr. Hogarth. He closed the door on Jillian and Mara. They heard it lock.

               Before Jillian could finish asking Mara if she thought he was coming back, he was back. He handed Mara a clear plastic collection cup, very tiny, and said, “Spit into this. But wait until I’m looking away. Seeing the spit come out of the mouth grosses me out, but once it’s out, I’m fine.” He held his eyelids shut with his index fingers, disdaining the overkill of whole-hand coverage.

               Jillian spat in the cup. “Is this enough?”

               Dr. Hogarth released his eyelids and they sprang open. “Yes. That’s plenty.” He backed into the house, closed the door, and locked it again.

               Jillian noticed that her mother was pale, fidgeting, using her right hand to rotate her watch around her left wrist. She would not look at Jillian. She was nowhere near as confident as she claimed. The shadows cast by the trees on the lawn carried visible weight.

               “How did you get my spit in the cup when I was a baby?” asked Jillian.

               “You drooled a lot,” said Mara. She didn’t smile.

               The door opened. Dr. Hogarth had a sheet of paper in his hand. “Well,” he said. “This was not expected.”

               A bolt of dread pierced Jillian’s stomach. “What do you mean?”

               Dr. Hogarth handed her the paper.

“‘Potential,’” she read. “‘95th percentile.’”

               “What does this mean?” asked Mara.

               “It means she still has most of the potential she was born with,” said Dr. Hogarth. “But she’s had just enough drained off to bring her back into the range where choosing failure is no longer impossible, although still very, very unlikely.”

               The three said nothing for a while, absorbing this information and absorbing each other’s reactions to the information and absorbing each other’s reactions to each other’s reactions to the information.

               “So you’re saying the framed pictures in the hallway drained off three percent of my potential?” asked Jillian.

               “Yes,” said Dr. Hogarth. “I never made any claims as to how much of your potential would drain if my instructions were ignored or defied. Turns out it was just enough to give you a sliver of space to squander it all.”

               Mara threw herself into Jillian’s arms and began to weep. “I held out as long as I could, Jillian. All your baby pictures are still in boxes. But once it had been a few years, I…I got cocky. I got careless. Your dad was gone, I hadn’t met Abel yet, and nothing else worked in that hallway. Everything else I tried there looked so stupid! It all looked so bad! It looked tacky, Jillian, like I didn’t know what to do with the space, but I knew exactly what to do with the space, I was just…worried. Worried that this would happen. But I talked myself into it. I convinced myself it wouldn’t change anything. As soon as we get home, I’m moving all of the pictures from the hall to…to…well, we’ll have to see.”

               Over her mother’s shoulder, Jillian watched Dr. Hogarth turn, his suit billowing like a suit really shouldn’t. The door whispered shut behind him, but the lock still clicked.

               On the way home, Mara began to forgive herself. “The 95th percentile is still very high, Jillian. Very high. You have more potential than 95% of the population! Just because you’ve chosen to fail to this point doesn’t mean you can’t still succeed.”

               “Mom, none of it is true,” said Jillian. “But I’ll do better. I want to do better, I know how to do better. It’s just a matter of, you know, doing it.”

               “Which should be no problem for you,” said Mara, squeezing Jillian’s arm as she drove. “Miss 95th percentile!”

               Jillian couldn’t help herself. It was too easy. “True,” she said. “But another three percent would sure be nice. Then I’d be sure I could turn things around.”

               Mara started crying again.


               Jillian had trouble finding another job. She got evicted. She probably would have gotten evicted even if she hadn’t lost her previous job. She moved into the updated guest room in her parents’ basement. The most recent update of all was that every framed picture of Jillian from the front hall had been relocated to the walls of the guest room so as to no longer exert any negative influence on her potential. They were hung haphazardly, not in chronological order.

Jillian spent her days searching for job postings online until resentment at the lack of opportunities became overpowering. Then she switched to exercise, to reading, to writing, to cooking. She plinked around on the family piano. She attempted to better herself in all these ways and more. She made hesitant stabs at fulfilling her potential. Woeful stabs. Nothing took. Her potential sloshed and gurgled inside of her. It was thick in her belly. It inhibited her movement, saturated her muscles and made her arms and legs cumbersome, crept up her esophagus like acid reflux.

Her parents didn’t hassle her. They saw her efforts. The results of those efforts were too meager for discussion. 98th percentile. 95th percentile. Both numbers were garbage, of course, fantasy. But she knew which she preferred.

Two months passed. Jillian changed tactics. Every night after her parents went to bed, Jillian hung her framed pictures in the basement hallway outside the guest room. Adhesive hooks didn’t leave marks on the walls, but she could only get a couple of uses out of them before she had to buy new ones. She set her alarm for early in the morning, the first to rise every day, returning the pictures to the walls in her room although never to the same spots. Not that Mara or Abel would notice.

Jillian tried to calculate. Tried to be as scientific as her mom thought Dr. Hogarth was. Mara had hung the first framed picture of Jillian in the upstairs hall when Jillian was three years old. So they’d been there continuously, day and night, for 24 years. That had only been enough to drain Jillian’s potential by three percentage points. 98th to 95th. But the full quantity of pictures had only been there since Jillian was 18. So that was nine years. Jillian had the advantage of having all 16 pictures to work with, but the disadvantage of only being able to hang them for a few hours at night. She could not allow her parents to catch her, especially Mara. Jillian would never be able to explain. After Mara’s tearful repentance, it would seem to her like the ultimate betrayal.

And this was all nonsense, of course. Jillian didn’t believe that she truly believed any of it. She regularly examined herself for warning signs of belief and never found cause for concern. The whole premise was too bizarre. Measuring potential. Saliva in a tiny cup. The practical differences between hall walls and room walls, framed photos and unframed photos.

But maybe there was a placebo effect. The power of suggestion. Not a drain so much as a slow leak. 94.9th percentile. 94.8th percentile. A gradual release. Not that the numbers were real. But they were as good a way as any to measure the sensation.

She took more pictures of herself and had them framed in secret. She bought more adhesive hooks to accommodate them. It took longer to hang them every night, longer to un-hang them every morning.

94.7th percentile.

Her framed pictures needed a permanent home. They needed to labor around the clock. Was a tunnel a hallway? She looked up the word “hall” in the dictionary. It read, “An area in a building onto which rooms open.” That could be a tunnel as long as there was a room on both ends. She bought hammers, chisels, shovels, buckets, she smuggled her tools downstairs while her parents were out with friends, she did the noisy work while they ran errands. The entrance was concealed by the dresser. The room at the other end would be empty.

94.6th percentile.

94.5th percentile.

She wasn’t certain this was the correct way to express these numbers. Could you do decimal points in percentiles? Dr. Hogarth might know. Or he might just make something up.

94.4th percentile. And falling.

Discussion Questions

  • Can a tunnel be a hallway? List the conditions necessary for such a thing to be true.

  • What should be the maximum size for trees?

  • Which of your parents’ selfish decorating touches do you most suspect of having a hand in measurably worsening your life?

  • I have this nagging feeling that my characters eat a disproportionate amount of shepherd’s pie, but have not gone back and done the research to confirm. YOU do the research and then get back to me about it.

  • Is it grosser to see the spit come out of the mouth or to see the spit after it’s already come out of the mouth? Assume an average spitting technique and an average saliva viscosity.