Read The Book of M Online

Authors: Peng Shepherd

The Book of M (49 page)

Oh, Ory,
I sighed.
I wish you'd never given me the recorder.

I knew only what I couldn't do: have you again, be Max, or forget. But I didn't know what I
could
do.

On the worn rug beneath me, a dark silhouette also stood, in the same posture, holding a shadow of the same object, lips moving around the same longing words. But the rest was slightly different. I was taller and not so young—it was slim, with narrow hips and small breasts, and a loose, soft afro that made its delicate shape seem like a dandelion when we both stood at certain angles.
That's what Max really looked like when she did this,
I thought. I remember clicking the machine on, whispering into the little metal speaker, so vividly that I would never have believed it had been someone else who had done it, and not me. It was all so, so real. But the proof was right there on the floor. That was Max. Not me.

Suddenly I realized there was one thing that I
could
do.

THE NEXT MORNING AT DAWN, I FOUND MY WAY TO THE RIGHT
house and knocked nervously at the last room on the upper floor. Willed myself not to run.

“Oh,” Malik said when he opened the door, surprised. He was silent for a moment. “Max,” he said.

My throat tightened. He was the first person kind enough to acknowledge me by that name since I'd left the sanctuary.

“Are you all right?” he asked.

I nodded stiffly. “Call me M,” I finally said.

I changed it last night, Ory. You'll always think that the tape recorder is the real Max, and that I'm someone else. So I'll be someone else. M is a small difference, but enough, I hope. Enough to make me something more than a bad copy, an incomplete translation. Both to you and to me.

Malik smiled sadly, and his whole face changed. The terrifying hard lines became kind. “M,” he said, “what can I do for you?”

“I heard about your mission,” I replied. “That you plan to spread the word about New Orleans, to give more people the courage to come.”

Malik nodded. “Not just spread the word—I want to be able to
show
them. To give them indisputable proof that Gajarajan is real, and so is his power. Otherwise I'm no better than the rumors.”

“That's why I'm here,” I said.

“I don't understand.”

I pointed at the ground, where the shadow that was attached to me, but did not reflect the form of my body at all, lay. “I'm your indisputable proof.”

THE SYMBOL OF OUR MISSION MUST HAVE A TITLE BEFITTING
its importance, the elephant said when he agreed. I became The Hand of Gajarajan. The first former shadowless person in the world. He also agreed that we should paint the carriages. He recognized that I knew what I was talking about—that a giant painting emblazoned across the side of a traveling vehicle was far easier to recognize and understand to shadowless than words would be.

I couldn't be next to you, but it turned out that we could still be together, in a different way. I would be The Hand of Gajarajan, and you would be his librarian. Two halves of the same purpose. You'd had the right idea about how to save your wife, but the wrong rescuer turned up in the end. Max had managed to build a shadow inside an object, but had no way of making sure the one who stripped it from the machine would then place it on the right body. What Gajarajan did
was an accident borne of love and hope—but we lost many things. We lost Max, but we also lost Ursula.

My hope is that in time, now that we have the key to make new shadows safely, more shadowless will come, and more books. I hope that we can find enough of both that everyone who wants a new shadow can be given one from our carefully managed library, so that no one who's ever born hereafter will be a substitute for someone real, instead of an original.

The night before the mission left, I met you one last time. Malik is an experienced, strong captain—if anyone can get us out and back, it will be him. But there's no guarantee that we'll return, and this really could be the last chance you'll have to learn what happened to your wife—truly the last. If I die, there will be no other version of her left, no matter how pale a substitute. You knew it, too.

I shared as many memories—of mine, of Max's—as I could with you. Not the things you experienced with her, because you already know those, but all the things that happened in the tape that you never got to hear. The RV, the others who traveled with us, the dangers we overcame. What we lost and gained. What magic we did. Everything you asked, I answered, with as much detail as if each memory had been the key to a riddle whose answer would mean life or death. Each was, I suppose, for both of us—just in different ways. For you, it was death. For me, it was life.

I'm not sure if you were there when we rode off, two full carriages, seven mares, and six volunteers, amid the resounding cheers. There were so many gathered, and the horses moved so fast, it was hard to see. The crowd whooped so loudly that the new Eight—the six that had defended us against Transcendence, now with Ramirez and Played-violin to replace Vienna and Survivedthestorm—rushed out of the first great hall to make sure something terrible wasn't happening. From the driver's bench of the first carriage, I watched the city slowly vanish into the distance as the bridge grew longer and longer behind us. Away from everything I loved. It was strange to think that when I first arrived, I
hadn't known who I was. But now, as we left, it could not have been more opposite. I felt it so deeply that I couldn't believe I had ever been anyone else but myself. The wind stung my eyes as they teared.

“You going to be all right?” Malik asked me gently.

I nodded. “I will,” I said. “I'm just remembering.”

We rode in silence after that, until sundown. According to the gate records over the last eight months, New Orleans received thirteen survivors—twelve shadowless and one shadowed—from Baton Rouge. The greatest number of people all from the same place, aside from your group from Washington, D.C. There was a good chance there were probably more there. As the horses surged, carrying us on, I looked at Malik for a long time and tried to pretend he was you. To pretend the man I loved had been placed inside this other new one. I studied the dark, weathered skin, the tired eyes and thin lips. The unfamiliar lines across his hard face. I tried to imagine you speaking not with your own voice but with Malik's rough, gravelly murmur. Would I still love you like I love you now? Or would I fail to see you just as you'd failed to see me?

Beneath my feet, my new shadow shuddered as the carriage rumbled over the worn road, keeping perfect time with me. Where all the recordings I now have are contained. The ones about the shelter, about Paul and Imanuel's wedding, about things before even that—and about the caravan, about friends who are no longer here, and about the long, mysterious road south. All the memories I had finally shared with you the night before, and the one single one I hadn't.

I told you everything you had wanted to know when we'd met. But there was one thing I didn't say to you and will never say, because I can't. It's not something that can be said—only something that can come as an answer. And you would never ask me the question. But even if I never say it, it's still real, because a thing does not have to be said to be real. It just has to be remembered.

I will remember it. For myself, for you, and for Max.

Fifty-two.

Acknowledgments

THANK YOU FIRST TO KATY DARBY AND EMILY PEDDER, WHO
were the first writers to make me believe I could also be one. Without you both, I never would have made it this far, because I never would have started at all.

Thank you to Sathyaseelan Subramaniam, in whose eyes I have never been anything but a writer, which gave me the courage to continue. Thank you to Jillian Keenan, who has watched me scribble stories for over twenty years and always known that I'd make it to print. And thank you to Rahul Kanakia, who made me think more deeply about this story than anyone else, and Marsha Sasmor, who magnanimously read more drafts than should have been humanly possible. I'm also grateful to David Lipsky, Darin Strauss, Emily Barton, and Jonathan Safran Foer for their guidance throughout my time at NYU and after, as well as to the Elizabeth George Foundation, whose generous support made it possible to finish the manuscript.

To my agent, Alexandra Machinist, thank you for believing in
The Book of M
even more than I did. At William Morrow and Harper Fiction, I'm eternally indebted to my incredible editors, Emily Krump and Natasha Bardon, for helping me make this novel the best that it could be, and to the entire amazing team at HarperCollins. I feel fortunate that this house is where my book calls home.

About the Author

PENG SHEPHERD
was born and raised in Phoenix, Arizona, where she rode horses and trained in classical ballet. She earned her MFA in creative writing from New York University, and has lived in Beijing; London; Los Angeles; Washington, D.C.; Philadelphia; and New York City.
The Book of M
is her first novel.

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Copyright

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are products of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, organizations, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

THE BOOK OF M
. Copyright © 2018 by Peng Shepherd. All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. By payment of the required fees, you have been granted the nonexclusive, nontransferable right to access and read the text of this e-book on-screen. No part of this text may be reproduced, transmitted, downloaded, decompiled, reverse-engineered, or stored in or introduced into any information storage and retrieval system, in any form or by any means, whether electronic or mechanical, now known or hereafter invented, without the express written permission of HarperCollins e-books.

A version of this text was published in Great Britain by Harper Fiction in June 2018.

FIRST WILLIAM MORROW HARDCOVER EDITION PUBLISHED IN 2018.

Digital Edition JUNE 2018 ISBN: 978-0-06-266962-9

Print ISBN: 978-0-06-266960-5 (hardcover)

ISBN 978-0-06-285979-2 (international edition)

Version 04202018

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