The Other Ninety PercentA short story by Danny Szydlowski.
Contest winner for the 2012 Teen Short Story Contest.
Reprinted with permission.
Amanda Hughes lifted the box, grunting as she did so and sending dust swirling through the air. The wooden floor of the Indian Trails Library creaked below her feet as she walked across the room and set the box down on the other side. She was in the attic, doing some volunteer work she hoped would help her get into college in two years. She was an average student, getting mostly B’s and some C’s, but average just wouldn’t cut it anymore. Colleges were looking for people who were “leaders at the community level as well as the state level,” as her counselor had told her. This could be her only chance of getting into college. Well, this and the upcoming ACT.
She would be taking the ACT in two weeks, and despite the many preparation classes her mom had enrolled her in, she did not feel prepared in the slightest. Didn’t her average scores in school indicate that she would do average on the ACT? And colleges didn’t look for average students. They looked for exceptional students, which Amanda clearly was not. There was no way that she would be able to get into college, not without some sort of miracle.
Amanda turned around and walked back to the boxes and lifted up the next one. However, years of moisture had weakened the bottom and it ripped open, books spilling onto the floor with several thumps. “Shit,” she swore, bending down to pick up the books. She noticed the binding of one of them was ripped, and swore again. The librarian in charge of her had specifically said to be careful with the books, because they were put up here quite some time ago; they were really old and fragile. If she was found with all of these books spread out on the floor, and especially with the one with the broken binding, she could lose her opportunity for volunteer work.
There were footsteps on the stairs. Unthinkingly, she shoved the broken book into the pocket of her sweatshirt, and dumped the rest back into the broken box. If she didn’t look too closely it almost appeared as if nothing had happened.
“How’s it going up here Amanda?”
Amanda whipped around and saw the librarian, Mrs. Breade, standing at the top of the stairs and peering at her over the top of her glasses. Amanda swallowed uneasily. “It’s been going well, actually, really well. I, um, I’ve been putting the boxes over there, like you asked-“
Mrs. Breade smiled. “Excellent, now we have much more space over on this side of the attic for putting older, less popular books.” She surveyed the rest of the room carefully. Amanda held her breath, fearing that Mrs. Breade would notice the disorganization of books in the one box, and that it was ripped. Thankfully there was no ground for her fears. “You’ve been working hard today, haven’t you?”
Amanda nodded. “Yes, ma’am.”
Mrs. Breade smiled appreciatively. “Thank you, and since you’ve been coming here every day for the past couple of weeks, I thought that today I’d let you off early.”
Amanda brightened at this. “Really? Because if you want I can finish moving the boxes…”
“No, you go on home. You have an ACT to study for as well, don’t you?”
Amanda nodded again. “I do, it’s in two weeks…and I’m kind of nervous.”
Mrs. Breade sighed. “I hate how they tax you kids so much with all of this testing stuff. Besides, How can they get an idea of a person’s character from a test? Nevertheless, I’m sure you’ll do fine, dear. You seem very bright to me.”
“Thanks…I think I’ll do well….If I’m lucky.”
“Luck has nothing to do with it; it’s all about studying. Which is what I suggest you go do with the time I am giving you.”
Later that night, Amanda sat at her desk, staring at her series of English pamphlets that her teacher had given her titled “How to grammatically succeed on the ACT”. Her mind was swimming with nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, conjunctions, prepositions…the whole lot. However, she just couldn’t keep her attention from wandering to other things. She strung together the paper clips on her desk, doodled on some post-it notes, and ate a sandwich. Debating whether or not to take a calming shower, Amanda slipped off her sweatshirt, something falling out of the pocket and dropping to the floor. It was that book, the one she had broken and then borrowed (stolen) from the library.
She picked it up carefully, trying not to damage it further. It was small, small enough to fit into her pocket, anyway. She turned it over and was surprised to find a picture of a test that looked similar to the ACT on the cover. It was titled “The Other Ninety Percent”. Curiously, she opened it up to the first page and started reading:
“Scientific studies show that the average person only uses about ten percent of their brain on a daily basis. This poses several questions. Why were we given the extra ninety percent? What function does it serve? Although we have not found the answer to these questions, we do know several ways that we can utilize this extra brainpower. If you follow the steps in this book, you will be able to astound your friends with your newfound knowledge, score higher on tests, and perform feats beyond your wildest imagination. Read on to experience the mind-blowing feeling of an influx of knowledge and power.”
Amanda laughed out loud. This all sounded like something they would say in an overly-confident commercial, pushing their product onto the consumer. Yet, she was intrigued…could there be a grain of truth in what they were saying? If so it could be extremely beneficial for her upcoming ACT. Only one way to find out…
“The first step to unlocking your inner power is to sleep much more than you are used to. Operating ninety percent more of your brain is going to leave you feeling exhausted, as it will require much more energy input, which is also a reason to complete step two (see page 45). We recommend getting at least fifteen hours a day for maximum performance. In this chapter we discuss the many techniques for time management in order to achieve the fifteen hours of required sleep.”
Amanda grinned. She already slept nearly that much on the weekends, and it would be no big deal for her to add a couple of extra hours. She flipped to page forty five, which was the beginning of Chapter two, “Increase Food Intake”. According to these first two steps, all she would have to do to succeed on her ACT would be to live like a normal teen. She glanced at the clock on her wall. It was half past nine. Normally she wouldn’t be going to sleep for another two hours, but this book suggested she get as much sleep as possible. It was time for her to hit the hay.
For the next few days, she followed the first two steps of the book, eating immense amounts and sleeping as much as possible. When her parents and two younger sisters asked her what she was up to, she replied that she must just be having a growth spurt. She felt a mysterious urge to the Other Ninety Percent a secret from them, feeling as if she was cheating somehow. She often wondered about this. Did she have an unfair advantage over the other people taking the test because of the book? She pushed her discomfort to the back of her mind, reminding herself that she didn’t even know if what she was doing was working. Besides, she was sacrificing her study time, so she very well might have been hurting herself.
She continued to go to the library, leaving even less time for her studying, and she did more work in the attic. The box the Other Ninety Percent had been stored in was taped on the bottom, and so she assumed that Mrs. Breade had discovered it torn and taken the liberty to fix it. Besides, she never said anything about it and was as cheery as usual.
“Did you sleep well, Amanda?” She asked one day as they sorted the books by genre. “You’ve been looking much more well-rested for the past couple of days. Nerves about the ACT aren’t getting to you, are they?”
Amanda smiled, trying to look as innocent as possible. “Oh, no. I’m actually feeling much more prepared than I was.”
Mrs. Breade nodded knowingly. “I told you that studying would help. It’s the key to success on the ACT, you know.”
Yes Mrs. Breade, Amanda thought. I know. You’ve only told me fifteen times. But what she said aloud was “yes, it seems to be helping me a lot.”
The third step in the book was fifteen minutes of meditation a day, to “reach deeper into oneself.” The fourth was focus, which, to Amanda’s surprise, involved chanting the words “ninety percent” fifty times a day. But, it got stranger still as Amanda continued her new regime, growing closer to the ACT. The fifth step was to avoid laughter at all costs, and the sixth was to write at least five hundred non-existent words a day. Her desk soon became littered with papers full of words like “julkhugh” and “gurash”. The seventh was to breathe heavily right before sleep, to “increase oxygen flow to the brain to prepare for activation”. However, it wasn’t until the eighth step that she started to get qualms about her strategy for success.
“In order to tame the mind, you must first learn to tame the body. Perhaps its greatest weakness is pain. To tame the body, you have to learn to overcome this pain. Hurt yourself. Feel yourself growing stronger.”
She stared at the book, her mouth agape, and had to reread it a second time. Hurt yourself? This was starting to sound like some sort of strange cult. She shuddered, remembering the videos she had watched in world history of ancient self-mutilation to appease the gods. This was along the same lines, and she would have none of it. She closed the book in disgust, tossing it under her bed without even looking at it. She would find a way to return it to the library without Mrs. Breade noticing, and start really studying. She couldn’t rely on this book anymore, not to this extent. She had tolerated the other steps, even enjoyed some of them, but this was taking it too far.
Amanda woke up the next morning and the unsettling discovery of last night came back to her. She thought about it as she stripped down and entered the shower. She had invested so much time into the book’s plan for success…and yet now she had to stop. All of her work was going to waste, she reflected sadly.
She stepped into her bathroom and immediately noticed the bright red gash running across from her shoulder blade and then down to her stomach. She put her hands over her mouth to keep herself from screaming, as there would be no doubt that her family would hear. She traced the scar over her shoulder and then turned around, following it down her back. There she found two more identical scars, seemingly made by the same object.
“I…I must have accidently scratched it on my bedpost…” she said, but even as the words came out of her mouth she knew they weren’t true. The words of the book swam into the front of her mind, seemingly mocking her.
HuRt YoUrSeLf. FeEl YoUrSeLf GrOwInG sTrOnGeR.
“No…” she whispered. “I’m not growing stronger…you are…”
The words, although formed as a command, were much more than that. They were a compelling fore, a force that Amanda could not even hope to combat. Darkness swam around the edge of her eyes, and then closed in completely. She fell to the floor, unconscious.
Amanda opened her eyes, and found herself looking up at the ceiling of her bathroom. How long had she been out? It couldn’t have been more than a couple of minutes. She shakily pulled herself to her feet, using the counter as support. The scars were still there, bright as ever. She took a shuddering breath. That book advised that she hurt herself…although not really. She got a sense that it was something much more than that. It wanted her to hurt herself. It was almost as if the book was alive…It was a deluded object intent on causing her harm.
Yet Amanda had listened to it. Or, rather, some part of her had, and had inflicted those wounds upon her during her sleep. She had only herself to blame. There was a knock on the door.
“Amanda? Are you okay in there? Your father and I heard a loud bang…” Her mom’s voice called through the locked door.
Amanda’s thoughts raced in her head. She was to blame, really, and if her mom found out that she had been following the cult-like instructions of a book she had stolen from the library she would go insane. She was going to have to keep this whole thing under wraps. “Yeah, mom, I’m fine. I just slipped a minute ago. The floor was a little damp.”
“Are you sure you’re okay? I can come in there if you want…”
“No, thanks though. It’s all good in here.”
She heard her mom’s footsteps walking away, and turned back to the mirror to continue examining her scars. The odd thing was that they were faded, almost as if they had been there for years. She sighed, resolving never to open the Other Ninety Percent again.
The days passed and she resumed normal life, visiting the library and studying intensively for the ACT (in addition to her normal schoolwork). She made sure to wear longer clothing that would cover her scars. She just didn’t know what she was going to do come warmer weather, but she would worry about that in due time.
With two days to go until the ACT, she decided to take a break from studying. Her two younger sisters, Jean and Hilary, were outside making a leaf pile, and she decided to join them. They played for hours, throwing the leaves up into the air, and Amanda felt like a kid again.
But then, when she went back inside, and was sitting alone in her room, she remembered her scars, and all of the fears and anxiety flowed back to her.
Amanda woke early in the morning, showered, and drove to her high school to take the ACT. She didn’t know why, but her school held the ACT on a Saturday, and she passed many students in the hallways grumbling about this, about how they lost sleep because of this. She remained thankful that she had increased her sleep as of late (not because of the book, but because her mother had advised her to do so). She walked to her designated classroom and took the ACT, feeling largely focused and well prepared.
In the following few weeks her anxiety slowly disappeared, and there were no signs at all of the book. That is, until November 12.
Amanda awoke in the middle of the night and swayed on her feet, surprised to see that she was standing up, and even more so that she was in her sisters’ room. There was an object in her hand, it glinted sinisterly in the glow of the night-light. She was holding a knife.
YoU dId wElL oN tHe AcT, dIdN’T yOu?
She jumped in fright as the voice seemingly whispered into her ear.
ThAt’S rIgHt, bE aFrAiD…yOu ShOuLd Be…YoU oWe mE fOr YoUr SuCceSs…
“What do you want?” Amanda squeaked, her body shaking.
YoU kNoW wHaT I wAnT…tAkE a LoOk At StEp 9…
The words appeared in her mind, conjured up by some dark force.
“Take the life of those closest to you. Use their life force to feed your own, and prepare for the last step to unlocking your potential.”
She gasped, feeling her hand moving toward the bottom bunk of her sister’s bunk-bed, the one that Hilary slept in. The knife was poised to kill. She tried to scream out, tried to warn her sister, but found that she couldn’t. The dark force in her mind was too strong. The dark force that was her mind was too strong. It was her. The Other Ninety Percent of her brain had become unleashed at last. Still, it was part of her, and so she could learn to control it. With an immense effort, she pulled her hand away from Hilary and walked rigidly out of the room. She walked back to her own room and collapsed on her bed, breathing heavily. She couldn’t let that happen again, she had to tell her parents. Yet, if she told her parents, it was more likely than not that they would have her admitted to some sort of mental hospital. She needed to show them the book.
Reluctantly, Amanda went down on her knees and peered under her bed. She had a moment of panic when she had feared she had lost the book, but found it after a minutes’ searching through the dirty socks and various papers that comprised the landscape under her bed. There it was, the book that had turned her brain into a weapon capable of killing her own family members (although she expected there was much more it was now capable of that it had not yet revealed). Who would write such a book? She looked carefully at the front cover, more so than she had done before. Embossed on it were the words Agnes Breade. She sat there in shocked silence, not believing her eyes.
Mrs. Breade, the nice librarian who she worked for, had written a book that could turn the mind into a being of savage potential? That just didn’t seem possible. However, if she wrote the book, maybe she knew a way of reversing its effects. Perhaps it wouldn’t be necessary for Amanda to talk to her parents about the book. Perhaps Mrs. Breade could help her.
Amanda sat in silence for the rest of the night, taking immense care not to fall asleep, as it appeared that was when she was most vulnerable. She waited until seven O’clock in the morning, the sun just peaking over the horizon and the rest of her family still asleep, and headed out the door. She drove to the library, the Other Ninety Percent nestled safely in her pocket and steeling herself to explain the whole situation to Mrs. Breade.
She parked the car and walked up the steps of the library. It was just beginning to stir with the activity of early-morning joggers and walkers, and Mrs. Breade was seated at her desk, writing something down on a piece of paper. Amanda walked toward the desk and Mrs.Breade looked up at her, smiling a smile that was highly toad-like. Amanda opened her mouth to speak but Mrs. Breade interrupted her.
“Ah, Amanda, I’ve been expecting you. Please, if you’ll follow me upstairs, I don’t want others hearing this.”
Baffled, Amanda followed Mrs. Breade up the stairs to the attic, Mrs. Breade batting down each of her questions. “Wait till we’re in the attic,” she hissed.
She opened the door and they entered the attic, a few more rays of sunlight filtering in through the windows than when Amanda had left home earlier.
“Have a seat,” Mrs. Breade said coldly, sitting down on one of the boxes herself. “I suppose you’re here to find out about the Other Ninety Percent?
Amanda nodded. “Yes, I took it from her a few weeks ago, and I started following the steps in it…” She was at a loss for words for a second, and then one found its way out. “Help.”
Mrs. Breade laughed at this, hideously loud and joyous. I knew you would find that book after I ripped open the bottom of that box and left it up here. I also knew that you treasured your reputation too much to admit to damaging the book, and that you would have taken it. Why did I write it, you may ask? Well, there is a problem with youths nowadays. They lack ambition and hard-work. They seek the easiest way to do everything.”
“Speak only when spoken to!” Mrs Breade chastised her, her eyes flashing with rage. She took a deep breath, regaining her composure. “I majored in psychology in college, did you know that?” She said very matter-of-factly.
Amanda shook her head.
“So, in my studies I devised a system of steps which would allow a person to discover for themselves just what their brain was capable of, if they put their minds to it. But then I punished them for their greed, trapping them with the book, and making them watch the world around them be destroyed by their own hands. Have you read step ten, darling?”
Amanda shook her head again, clutching the book tightly. The tips of her fingers felt numb. Mrs. Breade wasn’t going to help her. This was her plan all along, and Amanda had been too ignorant to realize it. Vaguely she heard Mrs. Breade tell her to turn to step ten, and she did what she was told. She read step ten and looked up at Mrs. Breade in horror, not really surprised that she was smiling again.
“You see? There is nothing you can do to stop it. I’m sorry, Amanda. I truly am. You were a good girl. But sometimes good girls must meet a bad end.”
Amanda pulled a pen out of her pocket and scribbled down a few sentences on a nearby piece of paper as she felt that darkness closing in on her. Mrs. Breade watched her amusedly.
“Please,” Amanda whispered, “Leave this with my body.”
Amanda Hughes committed suicide on November 12th around eight a.m. This note was found by her body.
I would like you to know that I did not do this under my own will. I can’t say who caused me to do this, or else you will never get the note. My piece of advice is this: Perhaps the most frightening thing in the world is ourselves. Please, take care to watch out for yourselves, for at the heart of every human is something so horrible that it cannot be controlled. Be aware that reaching your full potential sometimes isn’t as beneficial as it’s said to be.
Amanda got a 35 out of 36 on her ACT.