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Authors: Peng Shepherd

The Book of M (10 page)

The One Who Gathers

LATER, HE CAME TO HAVE MANY NAMES. THE ONE WITH A
Middle but No Beginning. The Stillmind. Patient RA. Last, most important of all—The One Who Gathers. But in the beginning, he had no name at all.

Once he had recovered enough to walk on his own, he was discharged from the hospital and moved to an assisted-living facility, to begin therapy with a specialist named Dr. Zadeh. This was years ago, some three months before that ominous May day when Hemu Joshi became the first man to lose his shadow. It was still early spring where he lived, in New Orleans—the sun rose late and set early in the gently crisp air there. Dr. Zadeh had come to him in the ICU on the first day, once the surgeons told him that his new patient was awake.

Things were a blur then. Emptiness and fear. He couldn't lift his head or speak. The nurses were so harried that none of them realized he might want to know what was going on, let alone stopped to tell him. But then Dr. Zadeh strode in with his starched lab coat, pen in hand, clipboard bursting with papers that must contain answers, and looked directly at him. Not at his vitals monitor, or his Frankenstein's monster scalp incision, but at
him.
The man felt a chill when he did it. Until that moment, the man hadn't been entirely sure he was alive at all.

“I'm Dr. Zadeh,” the doctor said. He spoke slowly and clearly. “You are in Ochsner Baptist Medical Center, in New Orleans. You were involved in a car crash and suffered injuries. Some of them were very serious. You were in a coma for a week, but you're out of the woods now. Blink once if you understand.”

Yyyyyh,
he tried. His mind could not will his tongue.

Finally he gave up trying to speak, and blinked once. It felt strange, as if only one eye had done it.

“Good,” Dr. Zadeh said, so encouragingly that he felt as if he'd accomplished something superhuman. “I'm going to ask you a few questions to better understand where we are with your recovery, and then I'll be able to give you more information. I want you to blink once to mean yes. Blink twice to mean no. Do you understand?”

The man blinked once.

“All right. First, are you in pain?”

He stared at the ceiling. Slowly things darkened and then brightened again twice in a row, to mean
no
. Blink, blink. The drugs were good. In fact, they were so good that he almost wanted pain—only so he could know that the rest of him was still there, on the bed.

“That's excellent, excellent. If you ever are in pain, I want you to blink very rapidly and continue until I notice. I'll be able to adjust your dosage immediately through your IV and then find the surgeon on duty.”

He blinked again once, to indicate he understood. Dr. Zadeh took a slow, thoughtful breath. The man waited, curious. He couldn't imagine a single thing the doctor might want to know. He couldn't move or feel, or really even think. He seemed to just exist—nothing more. “Do you know your name?” Dr. Zadeh asked.

Oh,
the man thought.
How strange.

“I need you to blink your answer to me,” Dr. Zadeh reminded him gently. “Do you know your name?”

Blink, blink.

“Thank you,” Dr. Zadeh said in a practiced, neutral way. “Next question. Do you know to where you were going in your car when you had the accident?”

The man looked at the walls, then the ceiling. His eyelids shuttered twice.

“Thank you. Do you know what city you grew up in?”

Blink, blink.

“Thank you. Do you know where you went to school?”

He hadn't realized that such things as cities and schools existed. Then as soon as Dr. Zadeh said the words, he could name the names of a hundred of them—but not a single thing about himself. Except that he had eyelids. Blink, blink. He waited for the next question. Blink, blink. Then the next. Blink, blink. Gradually the ceiling grew hot, then wetly blurry.

AFTER HE'D HEALED ENOUGH TO BE ABLE TO SPEAK EASILY
again, the man was told more of what had happened. In the rain, the car on the other side of the street had hydroplaned. He'd swerved to avoid a head-on collision and rolled his own vehicle down the side of a hill. It had been pouring so hard that night, the other driver didn't realize where the man's car had gone, the police report stated later. That it wasn't still on the dark road, traveling safely away in the other direction. It was another passing driver who noticed the headlights, like two stars in the black, but floating far too low to be in the sky. The man had been wearing a seat belt, but something went wrong. His head still hit the windshield twice, fracturing his skull and one eye socket. Underneath the gauze patch on the left side of his face, there wouldn't be an eye, he was warned ahead of the bandage's removal. There had been nothing left there to save. The man listened to it all, waiting for any fragment of that terrifying crash to hit him again. But there was nothing.

Dr. Zadeh spent a full week on his assessment. Brain scans, endless questions, more brain scans. He came in one day without his clipboard and sat on the edge of the man's white hospital bed. Total retrograde amnesia, from the moment of the accident, Dr. Zadeh told him softly. He was born at forty-two years old. A man with a middle, but no beginning.

THE ASSISTED-LIVING FACILITY WORKED MOSTLY WITH ALZHEIMER'S
patients, but Dr. Zadeh managed to secure him a room
there. He was one of the foremost neurologists in the country, the man learned from a fellow resident during a game of bingo. The hospital funded the facility for Dr. Zadeh in exchange for his research. The man became his star patient.

Every morning Dr. Zadeh gave him another test or watched him practice something he'd learned in afternoon rehab the day before. The man grew skilled at reciting his personal information from the flash cards he'd made, but it was worth nothing. It was like learning the stale, meaningless biography of another person. He didn't want to know that he learned how to sail in high school. He wanted to singe his palms on the rough rope, breathe salty air. He wanted to feel whether he had hated it or loved it.

He should have clung to it, but he began to despise the name that was stated on his driver's license. It was not him. It was someone else, whom he was never allowed to know but also not allowed to forget.

The other patients could feel it. Small parts of them inside understood. They began to call him anything but that name.
The newcomer. The young one. The car-crash lad.
Most often, because it was not Alzheimer's that stole his past but an accident:
the amnesiac.
The man—the amnesiac—loved them for it.

Midway through the first week, Tilly, who at a hundred and three years old had the revered title of oldest person in the facility, grinned at him as she was wheeled past. “You have a visitor today, Hennykins,” she sang.

“That's not your Hennykins,” her nurse said gently. Hennykins was what she had called her youngest son, Henry, when he was a baby, when she remembered that she had a son.

“Of course it is,” she said. She eyed the nurse. “Who are you, though?”

“You actually do have a visitor,” Dr. Zadeh said, coming up behind him.

A visitor? Someone had come to see him? The amnesiac stood speechless for a moment. It was a weightless, dizzy feeling. There was a person in the building who had known him from before.

He didn't know which way to walk, so he started walking in circles until Dr. Zadeh led him hurriedly to one of the community rooms. “Take it easy,” he said to the amnesiac kindly. “I'll be right outside if you need anything, all right?”

Inside, a middle-aged woman with shoulder-length blond hair jumped stiffly to her feet as the amnesiac closed the door behind himself. They both stood there, staring at each other. The amnesiac waited to feel the sensation that had been described to him as familiarity—a wave, a warm rush, a tingle, a lightning bolt. Nothing.

“My God,” the woman said. She put a hand over her mouth.

Oh, my eye,
he realized. She must have known him when he'd had two. “Hello,” he finally said back.

“How are you feeling?” she asked. She paused before she sat back down on the couch. She was trying to decide whether or not she should hug him, the amnesiac deduced. They knew each other at least somewhat well, then.

“Very well, thank you,” he replied. He went to the armchair across from her. The next line came out automatically, more like a long musical phrase rather than distinct words, he had practiced it so many times. “I'm sure Dr. Zadeh told you, but I suffered neurological complications from my accident. Would you kindly tell me your name, and how we know each other?”

“Um. Of course.” The woman shifted awkwardly and tucked her hair behind her ear. She was not pretty, the amnesiac decided. That was not the word he'd use. “My name is Charlotte. We went to college together.”

“Oh, yes. I have a bachelor's degree in history,” he recited. He watched her for another long moment. The way she had answered made it seem like not the full truth. Not a lie; just not everything. The flash cards said he did not have a sister. “Did you also study history?”

“No, anthropology.” She smiled. “Very marketable.”

“Did you become an anthropologist?”

Charlotte laughed. “I'm in marketing. Data storage company.” She uncrossed her legs, crossed them again the other way. “You—you also didn't end up becoming a historian,” she offered.

“No.” The amnesiac nodded. “I went into law.” So were the facts.

“Yes, I know.” She smiled.

That excited him. “Did I enjoy law school? How did I seem there?” he asked.

Charlotte pressed her lips together. “Well, probably no one
enjoys
law school—it's a lot of studying, a lot of competition. But I think you enjoyed being a lawyer. You always seemed passionate when you talked about your job.”

“I'm glad,” he said. That was very nice. He was happy he had liked being a lawyer. Charlotte pushed her hair behind her ear again and clasped her hands. It struck him then.
Fixed.
That was the word he would use. He meant it in the best of ways. He felt as though he was spinning around the world, unanchored, careening all the time. But for Charlotte, the world spun around her. He could feel it. She did not move an inch. She was the most fixed thing he'd found so far.

“I'm sorry I didn't come sooner,” she blurted suddenly. “This was as early as—I didn't know you'd been in an accident. Dr. Zadeh only called me last week. I guess it took them some time to work everything out off your driver's license. Who you were, everyone you might have known.”

“It's all right,” he said. It really was. He hadn't known to miss her at all.

Charlotte tried not to fidget. She was trying to look at him intently without actually looking at him.

“You can ask me anything,” the amnesiac said. “I don't mind.”

“So you remember nothing? Nothing from before you woke up in the hospital?”

He shook his head. “The first thing I remember is a nurse. She was leaning over me, trying to adjust my IV bag, when my eyes opened.”

“But you remembered what an IV bag is.”

“Yes.”

“And how to talk.”

“Yes.”

“Could you walk? And dress and eat?”

“Well, at first everything was too broken for me to move. But once I healed, then yes.”

Charlotte leaned back on the couch. “Huh,” she said to herself, mystified. “Huh.” The plate of cookies the facility staff had supplied for the visit sat untouched on the coffee table between them. He thought she might be about to cry.

The amnesiac understood then what she wanted. Why her answers were true but incomplete. The answer was no. No, no matter how long she sat there with him, he would not suddenly remember her on his own.

Dr. Zadeh suddenly appeared in a burst of starched cotton and papers. He was the way he was when on the verge of another idea to test on the amnesiac—excited, moving at double speed. He seemed to have forgotten that they were mid-visit, that Charlotte was even there. “Sorry to interrupt,” he managed at last, aiming a remote at the sleeping television in the corner of the room. He looked at the amnesiac as the screen blinked on. It was a festival of some kind, it seemed. At the center of all the colors, there was a man. A man with no shadow beneath him. “You have to see this.”

THE AMNESIAC SAT BACK AND SETTLED HIS ELBOWS ON THE
armrests. The chair was uncomfortably small. “Have I ever been on a plane before?” he asked.

“Many times, I'm sure,” Dr. Zadeh said as he fastened his own seat belt.

The amnesiac nodded, considering. The endless, low droning sound that filled the cabin of the plane made him feel like he was back in the hospital, hooked up to something. He wouldn't notice it after a while, Dr. Zadeh had promised. “Have I ever been to India before?”

“That you have not,” Dr. Zadeh replied. “The consulate didn't have any record of previous tourist visa applications under your name when I filed for this one.”

The amnesiac nodded. “Good.”

“Good?”

“This will be my first experience that hasn't actually already happened before.” He smiled. “My first real memory.”

THE FLIGHT WAS VERY LONG. BUT NOT AS LONG AS HE HAD
laid locked into his broken body in the hospital. The amnesiac sat comfortably. Any amount of time that was shorter than three weeks, he imagined he'd be able to tolerate quite easily. The plane sailed through the sky. He waited.

They brought a meal around. It looked different from the food at the assisted-living facility. He had never seen anything like it. Or perhaps he had. He took note to ask Charlotte about it at her next visit, to see if she knew.

“Lamb vindaloo.” Dr. Zadeh pointed with his fork. “It's pretty good.”

“It is,” the amnesiac agreed. “Is this Indian food?”

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