Read The Book of M Online

Authors: Peng Shepherd

The Book of M (6 page)

I DIDN'T LEAVE A NOTE, BECAUSE I THOUGHT THAT
MIGHT BE
worse. If you just think that I forgot you and wandered away, you could eventually forgive yourself, I hope. You'd still follow our first rule, before we had the other rules. The only rule that matters now. That you won't come after me.

I know, Ory, I know. I know you made that rule to protect me. You never thought that someday, I'd be the one who didn't return. But don't you see? That's why it had to be like this, like I'd already forgotten you, so you wouldn't follow me. I did it to protect you, Ory. Not to hurt you. If you knew not only that I had left, but that I did it on purpose, while I still remember you . . . you wouldn't understand. You still have your shadow—you
can't
understand. No note I could leave could ever convince you not to look for me—convince you that I left because I had to. I
had
to. To save you.

So I left nothing. Just disappeared.

Everything looks so different, it's hard to tell where I am. I thought I was prepared. I mean, I've seen the back of the shelter where the trap is, and some of the overgrown hills nearby—but the resort was always sort of foresty anyway, all grass and trees. I haven't been outside the grounds probably since everyone else from the wedding was still here. So when I got to the bottom of the mountain and looked left and right, trying to figure out where I was, it looked so unlike Elk Cliffs Road that I never would have recognized it in a million years. I had to close my eyes and figure out what it had looked like before, how to get where I wanted to go, from memory. Which is kind of hilarious, considering. It's fucking hilarious.

Sorry, bad joke. I guess I'm more nervous than I thought I'd be, out on my own like this.

It's been only a few days, but I'm actually not as hungry as I expected. You remember what the scientists said, back when it started—that once a shadowless has forgotten everything, it also forgets it's hungry or thirsty, or even that it needs to breathe. God, I hope I forget to eat or drink before I forget to breathe. I'd rather starve a hundred times than suffocate to death. Can you imagine? All that pain, the fire in your lungs, the slow, darkening stillness, and all you'd have to do is just take a breath, if only you could remember that your body could do it?

I'm sorry, Ory. I'm sure you don't want to hear that. I find myself thinking about stranger and stranger things. Maybe it's one of the effects.

Part of me still can't believe I did it. That I actually left you. It almost seems like someone else's memory when I think back on it now, for as long as I still can—like I'm watching someone who looks like me, but isn't.

The morning of that seventh day, when you finally went to the city to search for food, you gave me one last nervous look before you shut the door behind yourself to head off. The key twisted in the lock. I waited until your footsteps had faded. If there was a window uncovered that faced the direction you were walking, I would've watched you hike through the ever-tangling weeds until you disappeared. Instead, I counted to five hundred.

Then I went into the closet, took down the bag of sweaters from the top shelf, and filled the purse I brought for Paul and Imanuel's wedding with the essentials: underwear, some of our first-aid kit, one flashlight, our spare hunting knife. My tape recorder.

I worked quickly on purpose. So fast I couldn't think about what I was actually doing. If I'd gone any slower, my resolve would have failed. I zipped up the inner pocket of the purse, threw it over my shoulder, marched to the door, turned the lock, stepped out, and then shut it behind me. Click.

That's when I paused.

The finality of it really hit me then. That as soon as I walked away from that door, I'd never be able to find it again. I'd forget it, or the way back to it. This was really, really it.

The only thing that got my feet to move was the idea that came to me at that very moment. Until that point, I'd planned to go east, to try to make it to our home in D.C. Just to see it one last time before I forgot what it looked like. Before I forgot you. That's probably where you would guess I tried to make it to as well—tried, but got lost and then . . . You know.

But then I thought,
Why? Why not do the opposite? Why not see somewhere completely new for my very last days as Max?

So I went west instead.

Orlando Zhang

THAT WAS HIS LAST NIGHT IN THE SHELTER, ALTHOUGH HE
didn't know it at the time. Ory, sitting alone on a thin mattress, gun over his knee, everything he could carry stuffed into his pockets. So very different from the first night he and Max had spent there.

It was afternoon in the courtyard that day, years ago. Ory was standing on the lawn, holding a champagne flute in one hand. They called that place Elk Cliffs Resort then. The late sun warmed the left side of everything—faces, tables, each blade of grass. Beside him, Paul was practicing his speech, cursing every time he had to look at the thin, sweat-soaked book in his hands.

“Fuck. Fuck!” he growled.

“You know, for a poet, that's kind of an underwhelming opening line,” Ory said.

Paul glanced at him. His brow shone in the high-altitude light. “I can't remember the words,” he confessed sheepishly. “You'd think—I mean, I wrote the goddamn thing for him.” He sighed, meaning the book, all the poems in it. It was his second published collection, dedicated to Imanuel. “You'd think I could memorize the one I want to use for my vows.”

“He's a doctor. He'll never notice,” Ory said. Paul laughed. Across the grass, Max winked at him from afar, dress billowing in the breeze. The game trap was now there in the place where she was standing. “You'll get it,” Ory tried to reassure him. “One more time.”

Paul put the book back in his jacket pocket and took a long, deep breath. He squinted into the light. “Seven years, and I'm nervous,” he said. “Isn't that funny?”

“Wouldn't be worth it if you weren't.” Ory grinned.

That day was ancient history. Only about four weeks after Hemu Joshi first stepped out to the ravenous flash and whir of news cameras, and a few days after the cases in Brazil and Panama appeared. The U.S. had announced it was considering closing its borders, but aside from the cases that had begun appearing in Latin America, that was as near as the Forgetting seemed. It was still a dim, vague thing, a thing that was happening there, not here. Until suddenly it was.

It was almost funny when he thought back on it now. There they all were, tuxedoes and dresses fluttering in the fresh mountain breeze, tables set, candles lit ahead of the warming dusk, preparing to celebrate exactly the opposite of what was about to happen: the joining of memories, the promise that they would last long after the people were all gone. Instead, they witnessed the Forgetting reach the United States just before midnight.

THE CEREMONY WAS BEAUTIFUL. PAUL AND IMANUEL HAD
been together longer than Ory and Max, and their love was old news to him—he hadn't expected to cry when they read their vows. And then when he did, he couldn't believe he had ever expected not to.

Ory could see only half of Max's face from where he was standing at the front next to Paul, but he looked at her anyway as Rabbi Levenson pronounced them married and the room erupted in cheers. She leapt to her feet and stuck her fingers in her mouth in a piercing whistle. Paul and Imanuel were lost in a kiss, but Ory jumped at the sound, and then laughed when he realized it had come from her.

Ory helped herd everyone into the ballroom, where dining tables and a dance floor were set up. Someone had passed streamer poppers around the crowd, and when Paul and Imanuel entered last, Imanuel red-faced with joy, Paul doing a comical prance and singing a theme song he'd made up for them both, they all pulled the strings and rained a kaleidoscope of sequins and twirling crepe paper scraps down on them.

“Official co-choreographer,” Max said afterward as she and Ory savored their champagne, disbelieving his claim that he'd helped Paul invent his entrance dance. They were outside in the sloping courtyard with a handful of other guests, looking at the stars and vast darkness of the forest beneath. “I'll believe it when I see you perform it.”

“Oh, you'll see it,” Ory teased. “You'll see it tonight, in our room.”

“I look forward to it,” she said, clinking the rim of her glass against his.

He could tell that in one more drink or so, she'd be ready to go make a fool of herself on the dance floor with him. She was not a great dancer, all angles and elbows, but he loved the fact that she didn't care at all. He was ready to be a clumsy, gangly embarrassment too, to hold her hands as they spun and to try to dip her, to feel her hair stick to his sweaty cheek as he pulled her back in close. To feel her fingers clutch his shoulders for safety until it pinched when he tried to pick her up into a twirl. He leaned in to smell her perfume, but it was the back of her head facing him suddenly, not the side of her delicate neck. Someone had just pulled her into a hug.

“Here he is.” Ory grinned and wrapped his arms around both her and Paul, making them into a gigantic, six-legged monster. One of their champagnes went everywhere, disappearing into the grass.

“My best man,” Paul laughed, and mussed Ory's hair as he put a protective arm around Max's shoulder. “Now, you've only known him for a few years, but let me tell you something about kid-Ory,” he started, but then Imanuel was there also, holding a glass of bourbon in one hand and his phone in the other.

“Husband!” Paul interrupted himself, and the stern expression on Imanuel's face, whatever had been distracting him moments before, melted away for an instant as they kissed again. “Is that a patient? Is someone in labor? During our
wedding
?” Paul teased as he pulled back.

“No,” Imanuel smiled sheepishly, but then the solemn expression returned to line his features. Ory saw he had an internet browser open on the screen of his phone. “I went to get a drink and I heard the caterers talking. It—it happened to Boston.”

There was a moment when no one knew what he meant. It was probably the last moment that anyone ever didn't know. Now nothing ever meant anything else.

“The shadows?” Ory finally asked. But it seemed impossible. The rumors had begun that said perhaps it was something contagious, the new century's black plague, or Ebola, but it seemed like hysteria, still easy to dismiss. There was just no real information—no one was sending any signals out of the afflicted countries, by phone or email or post or television or radio—and besides satellite images and high-altitude military flyovers, which showed nothing but stillness and the occasional flicker of a terrified shape wandering through streets or jungle, there was nothing else to go on.

“It happened in Boston?” Max asked.

“Not
in
Boston.” Imanuel shook his head. “
To
Boston. Almost everyone there.”

BY MIDNIGHT, WORD HAD SPREAD THROUGHOUT THE WEDDING
party. The courtyard was deserted, champagne glasses abandoned half-full where they were, and everyone was crowded back into the ballroom. Some were on their cell phones, and the caterers had turned on the TV bolted to the wall in the corner of the room.

“Don't,” Max said. She put her hand over Ory's to stop him from opening the browser on his own phone, cradled now in his palm. They'd left their apartment in D.C. late that morning, and hadn't packed a charger in the rush to make it to the wedding on time. “Save the power, just in case.” It wouldn't matter—cellular signal would go down in another day or two before they'd run out of battery—but they didn't know that then. Ory nodded gratefully at her good thinking and edged the device back into his pocket.

On television, helicopter footage cut between downtown Boston and one of the larger highways out of the city beneath a reporter's voice-over. The National Guard had circled the metropolis and blocked all routes in and out, putting the entire population under
indefinite quarantine. There was a mini screen in the bottom right corner running at the same time as the live feed; it was a rerun of the president's speech that had apparently aired half an hour before, when the news about Boston first broke. He was in the middle of assuring the public that the nation's top scientists were working around the clock to figure out the cause of the epidemic—the world was still calling it “the epidemic” then, as if it was some kind of simple biological quirk, some twisted proteins or mutated virus that could be solved by the right vaccine—and advised everyone not to travel except in emergency circumstances. “
Stay safe, stay inside, limit travel, and limit contact with others whenever possible,
” his grainy image repeated. “
We are doing everything we can to find a way to neutralize the spread. I promise you, as soon as we discover a cure, we'll be sending FEMA and Red Cross agents door to door through every neighborhood to distribute it.
” His voice was calm, but the message was clear. Do not go to the hospital. Do not go to the grocery store. Do not leave your house. Wait.

Now, it was clear the Forgetting was not contagious. At least it didn't seem like it was. The number of times that Ory had been curiously examined or attacked by a shadowless while out scavenging, the number of random survivors he'd tried to help in the early days who later succumbed, and he was still here, still whole. If it had been contagious, he'd have lost his shadow years ago. He still had no idea what it actually was. And he'd given up trying to figure it out. But back then, as they all huddled in the ballroom, terrified, watching nervous soldiers try to say—then yell, then desperately mime—instructions to stop and turn back around at the confused, terrified shadowless man approaching them, no one knew if it was or wasn't something that could be passed by breath or touch. Everything else in the world had always worked that way. At the time, there was no reason to think this was any different. They couldn't be blamed for what happened then.

The president's little speech box disappeared, and the split screen suddenly dropped the view of downtown to focus on only the highway feed as the commotion started. A shadowless man had wandered away
from the city and was now stumbling toward the line of soldiers, crying, but not saying any words or seeming to hear the ones being shouted at him. He looked to be in his fifties—still strong, but balding, and beginning to grow a middle-aged paunch. He wore brown corduroys, a button-down shirt, and a navy blue sweater over it, pristine in the harsh blaze of the emergency floodlights.
He looks like a university professor,
Ory thought dazedly. A university professor with no shadow.

The soldiers were screaming now, some waving, some holding an open hand straight out in the universal gesture to stop, to
fucking stop,
stop or we have to shoot, we have to shoot to kill. The man didn't seem to recognize or remember any of it at all.

The station tried to cut away, but they weren't fast enough. Several guests in the ballroom screamed as the shadowless man on-screen snapped to a halt, frozen upright for one lingering instant, and then crumpled to the ground.

The news anchor materialized on-screen again, looking disoriented and unprepared, stumbling through a statement that was being fed to him through his earpiece. “We want to apologize for that graphic video clip . . . It was not our intention to air such an upsetting image . . . Unfortunately the nature of live news sometimes . . .”

“Holy shit, Ory,” Max murmured, her whole body tense. “Do we know anyone in Boston? Do you have friends or family there?” People had started arguing now, some calling for calm, others shouting across the room to each other for any new information they could dig up on their phones. Someone had a laptop out and was connecting it to Elk Cliffs's Wi-Fi.

“I don't think so,” Ory said, but his head was swimming. He felt dizzy.

“This is really bad,” Max kept saying. “This is really, really bad.”

Ory tried to refute that, to be the strong, steady one who would keep them both anchored, but he couldn't find the words. The TV was back on the helicopter camera hovering over Boston city limits, the body of the fallen shadowless man still in the street, this time
pixelated into an indiscernible mass. Ory couldn't tell for sure, but it looked like even in death, his shadow hadn't returned. The thought sent a chill through him.

The National Guard were still shoulder to shoulder, a wall across the road. They looked shaken, as if they were clinging to one another instead of forming a blockade. One was holding a black body bag in his hands, gun strapped back across his shoulders, but he was held by orders in the line, unable to go forward and lay it over the dead man, in case whatever was causing the Forgetting was transmissible through the air. The soldiers suddenly tensed, and guns rose from their downward angle to point straight forward with agonizing dread. More shadowless were approaching. Some running, some screaming, some silent.

This time the station didn't waste any time. The screen cut back to the anchor at the desk, who was scrambling through freshly scribbled papers and a blaring earpiece, trying not to listen for the sound of impending gunfire through the tiny speaker. Mid-speech he stammered. A long, horrible pause. He closed his eyes involuntarily. Then he opened them and kept going.

Ory glanced around the room and swallowed hard, to try to calm himself down, and looked back at the screen. Then he heard the anchor say something about Denver. He pulled Max closer, wrapped his arms around her, and squeezed with everything he had as the news cut to a reporter in Colorado. Someone had begun to sob.

“Hey,” he said as he crushed her into the hug. The shocked, rising hum of too many voices at once echoed off the stone walls of the ballroom. Shouts and ring tones blended into an eerie, doomed musical harmony. He wanted to say something comforting, to sound like he was there for her, to make it feel like it was all going to be okay soon, but the fear had numbed his mind. “Blue,” he finally managed, no more than a whisper.

“Fifty-two,” she whispered back.

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