Authors: Peng Shepherd
THE END OF ORY'S WORLD BEGAN WITH A DEER.
He went outside at dawn to where the trees began, to check the game trap. Followed the trip wire, pushed away the leaves, uncovered the hidden metal cage. Empty.
The air had already turned his hands red with cold before he'd scattered the dried twigs back into place with the nose of his shotgun. The last time there had been anything snared inside had been two weeks ago, at least. Pale orange bruised into gray around the edges of the horizon, a gangrenous dawn. He and his wife, Max, were down to just one meal now that it was too cold to catch anythingâa jar of spaghetti sauce he'd found the last time he broke into an abandoned house in western Arlington. There was no delaying it any longer. Ory would have to go into the city again to scavenge for food. Go or starve.
On the way back in, he saw it, frozen midstep in the weeds a few feet from the tree line. A deer. Its huge, dark pupils gleamed as they stared warily back, calculating. It should have dropped its antlers for the coming winter already, but they were still there, perched between its pricked ears.
Ory thought. He raised the double-barrel Remington in silence and aimed. Then he saw.
White steam billowed around its muzzle. The obsidian eyes blinked. It had seemed like a deer, but now he could see that it was not. Almost, but not quite. Where its bony, branchlike antlers should have been, instead a pair of small brown wings sprouted from its forehead, mottled feathers spread in the same way horns might curve.
Ory made for the shelter at a sprint. Inside, he scrambled to lock all the locks and re-prop the wood plank at an angle under the doorknob as fast as he could. Max was still asleep when he had left her, snoring lightly on her stomach, hair in her face. Ory went straight to the bedroom, straight to her.
“Blue,” he said as soon as her drowsy, dream-heavy eyes fluttered open and met his own. He waited, breathless, for her to speak. It was their test, their way of telling whether or not she still knew who he was.
“Fifty-two,” she whispered back.
They met at a football game.
LATER, HE STOOD IN THE BATHROOM, SHARPENING HIS KNIFE.
It made more sense not to shaveâcover against the cold, camouflage for how thin he'd become, thus how little of a threat his starved body might beâbut the act was hard to give up. There were so few things left he could still do that reminded him of the rest. Electricity. Cell phones. A desk job. Ory watched his arm glide past his face in the mirror. At how it blocked the light and cast the dark shape of itself back against his cheekbones, his chest. “Still there,” he said to himself. He closed his eyes for a moment and waited for the hammering of his heart to slow.
Two years ago, when the Forgetting first reached the United States, he and Max saw its effects. They had watched a shadowless man speaking perfect English walk straight into a fire, not remembering what it was. Heard children with no silhouettes ask flowers where the nearest water flowed as if the flowers could understand, but then inexplicably were able to head directly to it. Once a woman missing her dark twin named all the coins of their currency, but when she opened her hands, the metal pieces were in shapes they had never seen, engraved with designs of no country.
Why had it turned out to be that shadows were the parts of bodies where memories were stored? Why did it happen to some and not others? Once it finally did happen, why did some people forget things after two weeks and some hang on much longer? And when they finally did forget, why did the earth itself seem to forget, too? The image of the strange creature in the woods outside came to him again. Why when a shadowless forgot that deer didn't have wings on their heads, did it become true?
Those kinds of thoughts he didn't talk about with Max. Not anymore. Not since she had lost her own shadow seven days ago.
“Mr. Clean-cut,” Max said when she poked her head into the bathroom. Her loose bronze afro floated in the air above her head, living a life of its own. He loved that hair. It was as soft and untamable as she was. It was one of his favorite things about her.
“You mean Mr. Sexy,” Ory replied. She winked. He watched her in the mirror as she leaned against the doorframe, warm brown skin bathed gray in the dim light. At the empty space on the floor beneath her feet. At how nothing skipped darkly across the ground after her when she moved.
The amnesia happened at a different speed for each person, but by any measure, Max was doing very well, even after a week. Addresses, phone numbers, how Ory had proposed to her, what they'd done for their last anniversary, she could still recite it all.
In his most hopeful moments, he tried to convince himself that because she hadn't forgotten anything important yet, maybe, just maybe, she might not everâeven though he knew that was impossible. There had been small things. Tiny. So tiny, they had been easier to ignore than accept. Ory turned the blade over and inspected it when he finished shaving. The handle had been black when he'd found it obscured by a fallen cash register in a shuttered sporting goods shop. It was green now, he realized with a sinking dread. Max's favorite color.
And now the deer.
“I don't want to go,” Ory said. It would be the first time he'd left her to scavenge Arlington for food since she lost her shadow. “Let's just starve instead.”
“Okay,” Max smiled. Her untethered feet moved away. “I'll get your canteen.”
One more day,
Ory wanted to beg. But she was right. What were the odds that while he wasn't home to protect her, she would forget something devastatingly huge? There was only one answer, each of the seven days he had delayed going outâworse tomorrow. According
to the news, back when there had been electricity to watch it, today was the day that over 70 percent of victims forgot their first-degree relatives. Tomorrow would be the day that mothers did not remember their children. Yesterday would have been better than today, the day before that better than yesterday. But it was too late now. All he could do was go today instead of tomorrow, before she forgot something else. Before it was more than a knife handle that was changed, or a forest deer.
ORY COULD HEAR HER GOING THROUGH THINGS IN THE MAIN
room as he checked his backpack. He'd changed to his heavier coat, both for warmth and for the small amount of protection its padded layer gave. He hoped she wouldn't notice.
In the beginning, after the stores closed, Ory and Max had turned to looting. Broke glass windows and climbed inside darkened shops, and took what they needed. So had everyone else left that still had a shadow. They all understood that it was their last chance. Shelves were picked clean within a matter of days, and people had 250 bottles of shampoo in their apartments, or 40 pounds of bagged beef jerky in their attics.
Then it spread further. The ones left all started forgetting too, and disappeared. Wandered right out of their houses and couldn't remember how to get back, or died of starvation in one room, unable to figure out how to unlock a door or that there was an upstairs, until the doors themselves vanished from the walls and the stairs flattened to hallways, trapping them forever. How to get back to a shelter, how to use a can opener, that rain existed. Who would have thought that you'd need a shadow to work a key or recall your mother's name? Ory once saw a place outside downtown where a collection of nearly identical houses all crowded desperately onto a small stretch of grass, metastasizing on one another. Some with no windows, some with a hundred doorbells, some with the roof on the floor and the floor on the roof. In the middle, an emaciated skeleton was curled. Two streets
over, he found a house that looked like it might have been the original, the one the dead man had been desperate to return to, but couldn't remember where it was. Inside, there had been enough food for him and Max to survive a month.
Ory had combed Arlington that way as it was destroyed, looking for the houses where the last things had been hidden and not re-found. But by now, the world had long been picked clean. There was only one place left to go where there might be anything left.
“Your hands are shaky,” Max said as he walked into the main room.
“They're not shaky.”
“They are,” she repeated, and continued searching for the canteen. Ory took a deep breath and balled his fists, then relaxed. It didn't help.
Everything would be fine. He'd done it a hundred times by now. Walk, look, take, walk home. It didn't matter that this time Max didn't have a shadow, or that he was going to Broad Street. He'd be back just before sunset, like always.
“I'm fine,” he finally said.
“I know,” Max said. She turned back to the tableâshe'd found the canteen. “I won't forget until you get home. Promise.”
It meant nothing. It wasn't in her power to promise it anymore. They both smiled anyway. The old stainless steel container clinked as Max filled it up from the bucket of boiled water they kept for drinking. She screwed the lid on and handed it to Ory.
He took it slowly from her. “Okay, they're a little shaky,” he confessed.
Max laughed as he stuffed it into his pack. Her head was tossed back, lips grinning. For an instant she was frozen in profile, as if painted into the moment. There, standing in front of the tableâbut nothing draped against the wall, nothing spread across the floor.
He wouldn't have thought it would make a difference, but to watch a person move around and cast no shadow anywhere became
terrifying after a while. There was a strange weightlessness to it. As if they weren't actually there.
“Blue,” Ory finally said.
“Fifty-two,” Max replied.
He looked back down at his pack before she could see the relief on his face. Did it hurt or warm her that he checked so often? Did she think it was because he loved her or because he didn't trust her any longer? There was no way to believe either answer. Ory reached into his pack, fingers searching until he felt it. “There's something I want to talk about, before I go.”
She turned to face him, eyes focusing on what rested in his grip. An old-school tape recorder.
“Ory,” Max started tiredly. “Not again.”
“Please, Max,” he begged. He pushed the recorder into her hands. She held it stiffly in her long, dark fingers, as if it were a dead bird.
“We already talked about this,” she replied at last. “I thought we'd agreed.”
“Let's just try it. We have to
.” They looked at each other. “The deer,” Ory said. Meaning,
it was getting worse.
That now they knew she would start to forget bigger things.
The corner of the tape recorder glinted dully in her palm. Ory could just barely see the red
button on the side. He had thought, before it finally drove them apart, that her forgetting might bring them closer together. But every day was more and more strange. Every argument had become a horrible calculation: Was it worth it? How many hours would they lose to awkward silence in the aftermath?
“Okay,” Max finally said. “Yeah. Who knows. Maybe it'll work.”
They both looked at the little machine in silence. At last, she awkwardly tried to jam it into the too-small pocket of her coat.
“Oh, one more thing,” Ory added. He dug around in the front zipper of his bag until he found the long, thin coil. It was a loop of stainless steel cable, from god knows what dilapidated graveyard of a hardware store. There was a sturdy notch on one side of the
recorder's plastic body to connect a safety loopâhe threaded the cord through there and secured the clip. When he finished, the little machine hung like a necklace just below the swell of her chest, at a perfect length to lift up and record and to be tucked safely away underneath a shirt.
Max wrapped her arms around Ory and buried her forehead in his shoulder. They swayed.
“Wait, let me turn it onÂ .Â .Â .” She was smiling. Her thumb pressed the stiff
button, and she held the machine up to his mouth. “Okay, say it now,” she whispered.
“Blue,” Ory said awkwardly, shy at being recorded, but with feeling.
“Fifty-two,” Max replied when she'd pulled it close to her lips. She clicked it off and let it drop back down on the cord, still holding him. Ory held her back.
He thought at first she was cold and was using his body heat to warm herself up like she always did in the mornings, but that wasn't what she wanted.
“I won't be able to explore very far if I don'tâ” he started.
“Who cares,” she cut him off as she pried open his belt. There was a new desperation to her movements. Before she'd finished stripping it off him, Ory knew he didn't care anymore either.
Would the recorder actually make a difference?
The color of the knife handle.
Had he given it to Max because he still had hope, or because he had none?
He felt something rip as she pulled: a hem, a belt loop. The sound burned into his brain, and he played it again in his head, to remember the popping tear of the thread, what it sounded like when she knew it was him, and he was the one she wanted. “Blue,” he whispered again.
“Fuck me already,” Max hissed. She pulled the tape recorder over her head and tossed it onto the pile of discarded clothes.
It was all right. They could have secrets from each other, for the short time they had left to have secrets. She had agreed to try the tape recorder. Ory didn't have to admit to her that his determination to
keep her whole was more for himself than for her, that he was afraid she would be no different from the rest of the shadowlessâthat she would also love the strange magic of her amnesia more than him, and stop fighting to remember. She didn't have to tell him if she believed it, too.