Read The Book of M Online

Authors: Peng Shepherd

The Book of M (13 page)

The amnesiac shook his head. “I understand,” he said. “Honestly, I'm impressed even people with shadows can remember this much. All of you know these stories?”

“It seems to me no different than knowing all the names and statistics of current and past heroes from your favorite American football team, and the moments of their careers,” Hemu shrugged.

He had a point. “But you were saying,” the amnesiac said, remembering their audience on the other side of the observation panel. He was supposed to keep them on track.

“Yes, yes,” Hemu continued, grinning again. “So Surya marries Sanjna with her father's blessing. But when Sanjna comes to Surya's
house, because he's the god of the sun, she realizes that she can't bear the brilliant radiance of his light. She's unable to even be in the same room as him, let alone look at him. Sad, no?”

The amnesiac nodded.

“This is the interesting part. To escape the blinding light, Sanjna takes her own shadow and makes it into Chhaya, an identical copy of herself, then transforms into a mare so Surya won't recognize her. She flees to the forest, leaving Chhaya in her place to take care of the house and manage her domestic duties. Sometimes Chhaya is referred to in the Rigveda as Savarna, ‘same kind'—identical to Sanjna because she was made from her shadow, but mortal.”

The amnesiac realized he'd been leaning so far forward in his armchair that the back two legs had begun to hover a hair off the ground. Stories, yes—but he felt like Hemu was trying to get at something. The pieces seemed like they belonged to the same puzzle, even if they went at the other end of the finished picture. “What happened?” he asked.

Hemu shrugged nonchalantly. “Surya eventually figures out Chhaya is not Sanjna, and goes to the forest and finds his wife, hiding in mare form. Sanjna's father then manages to reduce Surya's brightness by one eighth, enough that Sanjna can bear the light, and she comes home.”

The tone of Hemu's voice as he said the last sentence sounded as though he'd reached the end of the story. The amnesiac glanced at the tinted viewing window, confused. “But what about Chhaya?” he finally asked.

“Some versions say she leaves, but most say she stays, as another wife. The gods sometimes have multiple wives.”

The amnesiac blinked. “That's it?”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, that's the whole thing? There's nothing more?”

“You are unhappy,” Hemu said uncertainly.

“No,” he said. “No, I—it's just that I thought maybe there was something else. Something that might help us. I didn't know it was just going to be a story.”

“I think if there was something that was going to help us, we'd already have thought of it.” Hemu snorted bitterly and looked down. “I just like the ending, that's all. I just thought, wasn't it nice, that Sanjna and her shadow were able to be reunited, and then the shadow stayed?” He trailed off. “That would be nice.”

The amnesiac leaned back in his seat, abashed. Hemu straightened his white tunic gently until there were no creases where the skirt bent across his lap, slightly embarrassed. The amnesiac could see how young he still was. Just barely a man, in either of their cultures. Behind the walls, the machines whirred softly, recording brain waves.

“Hemu, I'm sorry,” the amnesiac finally said. The story had ultimately gone nowhere, but Hemu was right. Even if there was no lesson, it was worth more than that. The resonances with the strange things happening now, the knowledge that at least there in India, millions of others would remember the same names, the same stories. Dr. Zadeh had asked him to talk with Hemu, to try and connect with him. It was not his job to turn their conversations into scientific evidence. It was just his job to listen. “I'm honored you wanted to tell me Surya's story. To include me in this giant shared memory. I doubt I would ever have heard it otherwise. If—” He folded his hands. “I don't think I remember any stories like that to give you.”

“It's all right,” Hemu said. “Maybe you can remember mine for me when I forget?”

“I hope you don't forget,” the amnesiac said.

“But you'll remember them anyway?” Hemu asked.

“Of course. As many as you want to tell me.”

WE SUITED UP THREE OF ELK CLIFFS'S KITCHEN STAFF
AND
two of the wedding band—the cello and the violin—in makeshift hazmat suits created from trash bags, rubber dishwashing gloves, five sets of goggles that came from who knows where, and as much duct tape as we could gather. The rest of us dug the graves.

You and I made Marion's with a shovel and a bucket. We were on the far slope of the mountain, on the opposite side from where the resort was built. I didn't see her again after that last time—once the decision had been made, you held me so I couldn't run for her. It probably didn't matter. She wouldn't have remembered me anyway. I tried not to imagine what it would be like to open four locked doors and shoot five human beings, and then carry their silent, heavy bodies so far. I tried to concentrate on the digging instead. I wasn't sure I'd ever dug anything so deep before. Halfway through, I couldn't feel my arms. By the end, I couldn't feel anything at all.

When it was done, I wanted to lay down in the wet coolness of the earth. The hole was so low that the walls of it cast shade over me. The dank chill on my skin was colder than I had felt in months. I wondered if Marion was the last person in her family to die, or the first.

The sun was setting. You were leaning over the muddy edge, peering down at me sitting in her grave. Slowly you reached down. I took your hand, and you hoisted me out.

“They're ready to bring them,” was all you said. The bodies.

The fire that night was quiet. No one wanted to ask if we'd done the right thing, because the possibility that we hadn't was unbearable.
You and I sat close together, my arm looped tightly around yours. We all watched the flames.

The next morning, we found Rabbi Levenson dead in the ballroom, propped peacefully against the bottom of the bar counter, an empty bottle of pills in his left hand. Ye-eun's name was on the label.

His shadow was still there, frozen forever beneath his still form.

Three weeks later, no one else had succumbed to the epidemic.

It rained for a couple of days, and we all moved back inside from the lawn until it stopped. The sun was so bright and clean after that. We moved right back out. That morning, you came and found Paul, Imanuel, and me working in the garden we were trying to start.

“I don't think you're supposed to bury them that deep.” Paul pulled half of the dirt I'd pushed over the seeds we'd found while poking around the safe part of the mountain.

“We don't want them to wash away if it rains,” I argued.

“The monsoons are almost over,” he said. His hair had started to grow out of his haircut, the front now tied up with a rubber band so it didn't fall in his eyes. I wondered what my own looked like. Probably as large as a cloud over my head. “That won't happen. Don't cover them so much.”

“She's right,” you said, and your shadow rolled over us as you reached the garden. The arms propped themselves on the hips, and it cocked its head the way that you always do. I watched the dark shape for a moment as it lay over the ground, and wondered if I saw it wandering alone if I'd recognize that it was
your
shadow, or if I wouldn't be able to tell the difference.

“Everything okay?” I finally asked you.

Paul stood up and brushed the dirt off his hands against his jeans,
and Imanuel copied him. I could tell from the look that passed between the three of you that it wasn't.

“Guys,” I said.

“Come with me,” you replied. You motioned with your head in the direction of the small creek that ran through the thicker part of the woods. “Just want to talk for a second.” You nodded at Paul and Imanuel. “We'll be right back.”

“All right,” Paul said. There was something strange in the tone. As if it had been a surrender at the end of an argument, not a casual comment. You looked at each other for a long time before he squatted back down.

You led me into the trees, over to the small stream. The water smelled almost sweet. I took one shoe off and nudged a few pebbles from the edge of the bank into the softly gurgling water. You copied me.

“Blue,” you said at last. Your voice was tight.

I stopped and looked at you, as you took my hand and looped your fingers tightly through mine.

I knew why you were crying then. You were crying because Paul and Imanuel had finally decided. They were going to make a break for it. They were going to leave Elk Cliffs. They wanted us to come with them, and you didn't want us to.

“Ory,” I said, “we can make it if we're careful. We can—”

“We're staying here.” Your voice cracked.

I looked down. “Let's at least talk about it,” I began. I could feel the panic setting in. I had to convince you. We had to go with them. If we stayed here, we'd be the only ones left eventually. Then we'd never go anywhere again. We'd die or lose our shadows here. “Maybe more guests might join us, so we could make a bigger group, or a safer—”

“We're staying here,” you repeated.

The words were so final, I didn't know what else I could say. Ideas raced through my mind, one after another, none good enough. “I already told them we were going with them, weeks ago,” I finally stammered, throat tight. “I told them you were in.”

But you didn't say anything to that. You just shook your head as the tears began to slide down your cheeks, and then looked down the mountain, over the trees below, into the setting sun.

I didn't understand at first. Why we had come so far just to talk. We all argued in front of each other now—no one cared about privacy anymore. The glow from the sun filled up your eyes, lighting the tears on fire.

Then I did.

You'd already spoken to Paul and Imanuel, long before I ever had. They'd tried to convince you to let us leave the mountain with them and travel together, to find either my family or Imanuel's. And you'd refused. You'd refused, to save our lives from whatever was out there, even though it meant never seeing them again. You'd told them not to let on if I asked to join—to lie to me. That when the day came to leave, to not say goodbye to us, so it would be too late to do anything by the time I realized.

There was no chance to convince you to let us go with them now because they were already gone.

Orlando Zhang

THE NOON SUN WAS BEARING DOWN, COOL BUT BRIGHT
enough to make Ory sweat. There was still no sign of Max.

He wiped his brow and scooted farther off to the side of the road, to walk under the shade of the trees. McLean had become some kind of subtropical wilderness, but warped. Along the roads, single human limbs, twisted into strange shapes and in various states of decomposition; entire neighborhoods charred to blackness; weird, chilling shrines of everyday objects haphazardly placed in strange corners, people's last attempts to try to collect and remember themselves; tunnels, dug a few feet into the grass or asphalt, all empty.

The shrines were both the best and most worrisome sign. There were far more of them here than in the suburbs of Arlington he normally patrolled—more shrines meant more people to ask about Max. But the kind of people that made shrines were shadowless people.

The little altar just ahead of him on the shattered sidewalk looked freshly built. A stack of salvaged objects that made no sense together, their only connection being that they'd been found in the same place, because they'd belonged to the same owner. An owner who didn't know why they were important anymore, only that they were, because they held answers to a past he or she could no longer remember. There was a tattered teddy bear, a faded paperback book, what looked like a pair of boxers, a hammer, a box of condoms, and a pile of dead AA batteries.

Ory touched the cover of the paperback. It was dusty, the pages curled from having endured rain and dried countless times. He didn't see them often anymore, books. Maybe people had used them for kindling. Every time he did, it made him think of Paul—his own
beautiful covers decaying on bookstore shelves now. His poems that no one was ever going to read again. He hoped that however Paul and Imanuel had met their end after they left the mountain, it had been kind and quick.

The moldy spine almost fell apart as Ory edged the cover open.
BOOKSTOP USED BOOKS
. No name.

He heard the shadowless before he saw it. A shifting of leaves in the green ahead. Ory backed away from the sound slowly, turned to run. But instead of an empty road, there was a man standing there. A broken-off table leg in his hand.

“Trees play tricks,” the shadowless said. His words were syrupy, struggling. “Willow tree, very tricky.” The trees shifted again around them, tossing the sound so then it seemed to come from the left. For an instant, Ory was almost sure he'd seen a face, but made of bark, not skin. The leaves rustled even though there was no wind in them, as if laughing.

“I don't mean any harm,” Ory whispered, even though his shotgun was leveled at the man.

The shadowless snickered. Nothing copied him on the asphalt. “No harm,” he said, pointing at the gun. “But you have the thunderstorm.”

Ory winced, but it was too late. He thought of the deer outside his and Max's shelter, his hunting knife. The Remington still looked the same in his hands, but there was no way now to be sure what would come out of the muzzle. What a memory of a “thunderstorm” might mean. “Okay,” he agreed. He lowered the gun and held up one empty palm in a signal of peace.

But the man wasn't looking at Ory anymore. “Shadow,” he said softly.

It doesn't come off,
Ory almost said.
There's no way for me to give it to you.
“I just want to keep going,” he smiled. “I have to keep going that way.”

“Way for trade,” the shadowless said.

“What?”

“Way for trade.” The willow trees rustled. He pointed at the road, then held out his hand. “Way for trade.”

He wanted something in exchange for letting him pass, Ory realized. “Uh—” He dug into his pockets frantically for everything he'd brought from the shelter, aside from the gun and the last of his dried jerky meat: a pouch with sewing tools, the sliver of his last bar of soap, a first-aid kit, and a few Elk Cliffs pens.

The shadowless watched him impassively as Ory held them out, unimpressed. “No. No good.”

“I don't have anything else,” Ory answered. His legs tingled, ready to bolt.

“But shadow does. Shadow knows things.”

“No,” Ory started.

“Yes,” the shadowless insisted. The table leg came up, and he pointed it at both Ory and his dark twin. “Shadowless has questions, shadow has answers. Ask shadow who I am, then you pass.”

“It doesn't work like that,” Ory said helplessly. “It doesn't know things about others. It only knows things about me.”

“Ask anyway,” the shadowless hissed. He pointed at the shadow again. “
Ask it.

Ory raised his hands, surrendering. Was there anything about the man he could glean from just looking at him? He seemed to be under thirty. Shorter than Ory, possibly Hispanic, possibly once in very good shape and not starving, when there had been stoves to cook better food on. There were scars across his forehead, and he wore a tarnished gold ring, but not on the correct finger to mean he'd been married.

The shadowless growled. Ory turned to face his shadow fully, tried to make eye contact with it on the asphalt as if he were having a real conversation with it. “Do you know anything about this man?” he asked the dark shape. He paused for a moment. Pretended to listen. He wanted to give the shadowless an answer and escape as quickly as
possible, but he also wanted to ask him about Max. About where she had gone—what Ory was heading into. The woman and her crew on Broad Street had said “something bad” was growing in D.C., but no more than that. “I see.”

The shadowless nearly crumpled to his knees. His eyes gleamed. “What did it say?” he begged.

“It said that it cannot be sure, but it thinks that it might know something about you.” Ory held up his hand. “But first it needs to know one thing. Did you see a shadowless woman pass by here within the last few days?”

“No,” the man said.

It meant nothing. She easily could have come past when he was asleep or busy, or gone another way. “All right. One more thing.”

“No more,” he warned.

“It has to be sure it has the right person,” Ory said, gesturing to his shadow.

The shadowless raised the table leg threateningly. The message was clear.

Ory gritted his teeth and nodded. “Okay, no more.” He could feel the shape of the table leg through the air as it trembled in the man's impatient grip. Every inch of his skin was attuned to it.

“What shadow say?” the shadowless asked again. He scooted closer, like a child trying to sneak his way onto Santa's lap. The trees hissed excitedly. There was a face again, for a moment, like a woman carved into wood, with leaves for hair.

“My shadow said it's certain now.” Ory smiled, trying to sound confident. There was no way he could know if the shadowless would remember the real answer to what he tried to make up—his only goal was to confuse the man long enough to make a run for it while he pondered the answer. “It said that your name was Jeff, and you taught the trees how to talk to you.”

They watched each other for a long second. Ory and his shadow both slid their feet an inch to the left, to bolt.

“Lie! Shadow lies!” the shadowless screamed. The trees shrieked with him, enraged.

“Wait—” Ory put his hand up.

“Lies!
Wife
taught the trees!”

“No, wait!” Ory cried as the man broke into a full sprint for him. The trees howled, branches creaking as they stretched.
The shotgun!
he thought. “Stop!” The shadowless did not stop. Ory jammed the cartridges.
Come on.
“Stop!”
Come ON!
The break action snapped shut. Shells clicked into place. The shadowless raised the table leg and lunged.

When the man landed, a few feet behind where he had originally taken off, he stayed standing for a moment. The bang echoed into silence as they both waited. Him to find out if Ory had missed, Ory to find out what the gun now did at all.

Then he fell.

Ory ran to him and stared. His chest was split open, two sides parted like clouds in the sky. Inside, it wasn't red, but dark, deep blue, and churning. There was a bang again from inside, and live white tendrils snapped, lightning snaking out from inside, electrocuting in agonizing bursts.

“Oh my God,” Ory said.

“Thunderstorm,” the shadowless whispered between jolts. His eyes kept track of Ory's shadow as it breathed in time with his body, trembling over the dirt. He watched it as closely as he watched Ory, as if he wasn't quite sure which one of them was in control, and which one of them had done it. His eyes were amber pools, flecked with gold in the deepest parts that glittered when the current went through them. Around them, the trees hushed, as if alive, as if afraid. Or perhaps in mourning. If the fragment of the woman who had once been the shadowless's wife still remembered anything at all.

Ory couldn't leave him like that, to suffer for who knew how long, but he was too scared to use the gun again. His hands scrambled at his belt for the knife.

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