Read The Book of M Online

Authors: Peng Shepherd

The Book of M (7 page)

I CAN'T REALLY AVOID IT ANY LONGER, I GUESS. NOT
TALKING
about it isn't going to change that it happened, so I might as well say something before I forget how it went. I don't know if I believe you yet, Ory. If recording things will really make a difference at all. But if it does—well, I don't really know what are the most important things to get down on tape yet, so I figure I should probably just say everything I can think of. Including this.

So. The day I lost my shadow.

It was two weeks ago now. Which is a pretty long time for me to still remember as much as I do, judging by past cases. Everyone's different, though, they say. Hemu Joshi started losing his memories so quickly, just a few days in, but there were reports of some people in Mumbai who took a month to forget anything significant. I think the longest one I ever heard about before the electricity went out was about a month and a half. So hopefully I'm more toward that side of the average. These past two weeks have felt like a year, in some ways. To have a month and a half left before it all goes, it might feel like an eternity.

This is strange, talking to myself and you like this. Especially since I'm not there with you anymore. I have a confession: I actually wasn't going to use the tape recorder, even though I promised you I would. But then I got out here, alone, and I just—it feels good to talk. It makes me feel real still.

I know I'm the one who left and that you'll never hear this, but before I start, I want to say, just in case: Ory, if you're listening to this—somehow, some way—it didn't hurt. So don't worry about that part, at least. I hardly felt it.

There was nothing about that morning two weeks ago that seemed different. I'm sure you'd say the same. I looked normal, felt normal. We split a can of corn from our dwindling cupboard supply, and then you left to check the trap and then the city. I've racked my brain for anything. A sign, a twinge, a premonition. But there was nothing.

After you left, I went into the kitchenette to do the counting for us. How many matches. How many shotgun shells. How many pills of found Tylenol, amoxicillin, doxycycline. I felt like a squirrel, counting how many nuts we'd managed to store in the hole in our tree to see if it was enough to last through the winter.

You know this already—the kitchenette was my favorite room in the shelter, because the window was so small and our floor was high enough up that a person couldn't see in from the ground, so the glass there could stay uncovered. At first you wanted to block it like the rest of them, just to be safe, but I managed to convince you to leave just that one open. I don't think you have any idea how much time I spent in that room on days you were out scavenging for supplies or skinning a mouse from our trap. Some mornings, I just lay on the floor there, sunbathing.

Sometimes, on particularly bright days when the wind was very still, two little gray sparrows would land on the branches of the tree outside that window. I think they might even have been mates. A few weeks ago, even though it was already getting cold, one of them came back with some sticks, and I was so excited that they might be building their nest there that I forgot to do anything I was supposed to do that day, which was quite a bit: I had at least three of your shirts to sew because you kept ripping the seam where the sleeve joined the shoulder, and I was supposed to repair the cardboard covering on one of the first-floor windows where it had peeled loose and was flapping against the cracked glass in the breeze. You were afraid the movement might attract passersby that otherwise wouldn't have noticed or considered the building. I agreed that this made sense. I just completely forgot, because of the birds. We got in a pretty big fight about that
when you got home, I remember. That was before my shadow disappeared and you started handling me with kid gloves. Now, when I forget to do something, you barely say anything at all, or sometimes even tell me it's fine, that you're just happy I'm still doing well and had a good day. But the look on your face now is so much worse. I'd rather have a hundred thousand fights than see that look on your face again. Well, I guess I won't have to anymore.

Okay, stop being grim. I'm off topic.

I remember grabbing a jar of spaghetti sauce mid-count when I first noticed it. The strange stillness in the room. It was always so still when only I was home, but this was stillness of a different quality. It was full of something, rather than absent.

I looked down at my shadow there on the floor, and because of the light from that little window, it was perfectly stretched out in front of me. We were the exact same height and shape. There was no distortion from the angle of the sun or a bump in the floor or a wall that might have cut into the silhouette. We matched exactly.
Perfectly
. Down to the eyelash.

I lifted up the jar, and so did my shadow. We both leaned over and set the sauces on the counters, and returned our hands to rest at our sides. It was like I could feel that something was about to happen. Like I shouldn't look away.

Then something did. This is going to sound absolutely crazy, but I swear it's true.

I was holding perfectly still, under the spell of that feeling, just watching my shadow. It was looking back at me, in the same pose, waiting.

Then I saw it tilt its head ever so slightly to the side, all by itself.

There was a moment of coldness, like the entire room had dropped twenty degrees. I tried to take a breath, but I couldn't move. Then it was gone.

I didn't cry. Not that whole afternoon. Instead, I kept busy, taking inventory of our first-aid supplies, cleaning, making sure the window coverings were still secure, double-checking that we had sufficient shotgun ammunition, cleaning and resetting the game trap. I felt like there were so many things to make sure of, and so little time. Like it was all going to end that same night, and I'd just vanish too, forever. I kept spinning around to look behind me, to see if maybe I'd been mistaken, that the sun had just disappeared behind some clouds for a second, or I simply had cabin fever. But it didn't matter how many times I looked or how many different directions I shone our spare flashlight on my hand. I couldn't make a silhouette against any surface. In the light on the wall, the plastic cylinder looked like it was floating in midair all by itself, careening wildly about, pointing every which angle. As soon as I noticed, I put it down immediately. I couldn't touch it again.

I forgot to start dinner. Instead, I shook out the winter clothes in the storage trunk so they wouldn't have moth holes in them by the time we needed them. I still didn't cry.

Even when I went back in the kitchen and saw that jar still sitting on the counter, and its own twin still painted darkly on the floor, I
still
didn't cry.

Not until after it had gotten dark, and I heard your key in the door.

Mahnaz Ahmadi

THAT NIGHT, THE NIGHT THE FORGETTING REACHED BOSTON,
Naz had spent the afternoon out on the range with her coach, but every shot was terrible. She bungled them one after another for so many hours that finally he cut the practice short, and told her to head home and go to sleep early. Naz knew something was really off when she didn't argue with him about getting soft on her, for once. Her mind just wasn't there. It was like she knew something was coming.
It's in your DNA,
her mother would have said.
They say that DNA has a memory, too.
That the things that happen to a people are passed down. Naz would have told her that was nonsense. If they hadn't disowned each other so long ago.

When the Forgetting hit, after dark, it surprised Naz that her mother was who she thought of first. Then she thought,
I can't.
She'd kept her promise never to speak to her again—since the last time she'd visited Tehran. Her mother had, too. Outside, on the street below, she could hear people screaming in the night.

Naz picked up her cell phone. She had started seeing someone recently, maybe seriously. She didn't know. She scrolled to his number, but her finger stalled, hovering over the screen. What did two and a half months mean, really? Fourteen dates, five lays, eighteen glasses of wine, one drive to the airport for a weekend trip. He hadn't reached out for Naz. There was no message flashing urgently in the blue glow of her screen. It was all right, though. Naz understood. There were other people who mattered more, to them both.

The call didn't go through the first time. Naz was sure everyone who hadn't lost their shadow was busy calling everyone who had. She hung up and immediately dialed again. She was ready to leave a
voice mail.
I just wanted to say I'm okay, that's all.
Something like that. She was surprised when her mother picked up.

“Are you safe?” Her mother was sobbing. It was disorienting—to listen as things that used to matter so much evaporated. What filled their empty places to justify all that lost time? Naz was scrambling for her shoes and wallet. Would a $15,000 charge even go through on her credit card? She couldn't remember how to get to the airport, what freeway.

It didn't matter. They'd closed Boston airport, her mother told her. She'd seen it on the news. Naz couldn't go home. “Are you safe? Tell me you're safe,” her mother pleaded.

Naz told her she was okay. Everything was slowly draining out of her. When she'd needed to be brave for someone else a moment ago, it was one thing. But it was hard to be brave for just herself. She backed away from the windows, sank to the carpet. Red and blue alternating flashes passed on the street outside, casting ghostly streaks across the ceiling.
I have to get out of the city,
Naz thought, at the same moment that her mother was telling her they'd quarantined it, that they were shooting people trying to break the line. “Turn on your damn TV, Mahnaz!” she shouted.

The president's face flashed up in front of her, alongside helicopter feeds of various neighborhoods. Naz even saw her own.

“What should I do?” she asked her mother. “Should I go upstairs or go in the basement?”

“No!” her mother cried. “You have to leave the house. Now. Anyone could find you there, because that's where you're supposed to be.”

Boston was a place where her mother's paranoid advice had stopped terrifying Naz long ago. It was a place where no one made two extra turns on the way anywhere, to lose a tail. Where no one memorized license plates. Where no one had a secret hiding place in the hall closet. It was a place where Naz had all the answers, and her mother would flounder embarrassingly on the sidewalk, gaping at the
things teenagers carelessly shouted, the crop tops, the virtual reality demos at pop-up game booths on Newbury Street. But this wasn't the Boston Naz knew anymore, and her mother had lived this life before. She had learned a world where one had to know what to do if people were being killed, if someone might be coming to find you. Naz felt herself nodding vigorously at her mother's words.

“Where can you go that no one will think to look? Somewhere that wouldn't be worth checking.”

That's how Naz ended up living in her perhaps-boyfriend's music studio.

SHE FIGURED, NO SERIOUS STORES OF FOOD, NO WEAPONS,
no camping or survival supplies. A vacant, soundproof studio inside of a nondescript commercial warehouse was about as unattractive a target as possible. Why would anyone go there to try to wait out the chaos that was happening outside?

Naz dumped everything in her pantry, everything in the top drawer of her dresser, her toiletries, and her bow and quiver into a duffel bag.

“Do you see anyone? Are you there yet?” her mother asked.

“Please stop talking,” Naz begged. She'd put the Bluetooth earpiece in her ear and clipped the phone to her belt holster so her mother could stay with her as she sprinted down every side street she could find to reach the studio. The intersection ahead exploded in a hail of bullets. Naz threw herself to the ground, flat against the sidewalk behind a battered parked car. Ahead, a person fell, and someone whooped, as if it was a game. More bodies came sprinting down the street, just on the other side of the car. They moved too fast for her to see if they had shadows or not.

“Then you talk,” she said. “Please!”

“A roadblock or a riot, I think,” Naz tried. “Maman, I have to—they'll hear me.”

Naz went around. It was the same on the next street. Someone had either shot out the streetlamps or the power grid was starting to fail. All she could see in the glow of the red traffic lights were things running, whipping past each other. Two crashed—a shattering of glass or something. Men screamed.

“Police!” the police shouted. Sirens burst to life, and a white car materialized out of the night. The mob attacked the car. Then another mob attacked the mob attacking the car, swinging metal baseball bats.

“Fuck,” Naz gasped.

“Mahnaz? Are you there?” her mother cried.

“Maman, shut up!”

“Okay,” she said more quietly. “I have a map, the tourist map you sent me when you first went. The only neighborhood I haven't seen on the internet news yet is Dudley Square. This is on the way to the studio? Can you go through there?”

Naz cinched her bag tighter across her chest. “Okay,” she said. “But no more talking.”

DUDLEY SQUARE WAS QUIETER, BUT IN A TERRIFYING WAY. THE
lights were all out, even in the houses. Naz could see people in their windows by the light reflecting off their eyes from emergency candles. Her legs were so weak the muscles burned cold as she tried to move them, but she kept running. She was too afraid to walk.
Please don't shoot me,
she thought.
Please see there's still a little dark thing on the sidewalk following me.

When she reached the parking lot of the warehouse, there was a single car there, parked in the exact center of the lot. Naz crouched in the hedges at the edge of the property, staring. Was someone inside? Or were they in the building? Would they kill her? Did they have a shadow? The last question sounded so fantastical, so unnatural and horrifying, that she almost giggled hysterically. Her mother waited, breathless. It took Naz fifteen minutes to work up the courage to approach the car, bow drawn. She couldn't tell until she was right
up against the driver's window that it was completely burned out, to cinders, with only a skeleton at the wheel.

She used her copy of her perhaps-boyfriend's key and climbed the stairs to the third floor in pitch-blackness.

“Are you there yet?”

“Yes,” Naz panted as she reached the landing. She pushed the door open. Across the gray industrial carpet, she could make out the dim outline of his band's door, their handwritten name still taped to it. She'd made it. She'd survived the trip.

She ducked back into the stairwell and vomited everywhere.

HER MOTHER STAYED ON THE PHONE WITH NAZ UNTIL SHE
fell asleep sometime just before dawn. Her mother knew the boy wasn't there, but Naz didn't mention him, and she didn't ask more. Naz was just happy there was someone with her. Well, sort of with her.

When she woke up, the phone was dead. She uncurled from the floor behind the huge speakers and tried to sit up. Everything ached. It felt like she'd pulled every muscle in her body the night before trying to run there. Maybe she had.

She crawled over to the wall and plugged her charger into the outlet. When the phone came back to life a few minutes later, there were forty-two messages.

Are you all right?

Can you see the news from where you are?

Text me back if you're okay.

They're saying on the news that the quarantine is going to continue.

Just let me know you're still okay.

Call me!!!

“I'm okay,” Naz said, but gently, when she picked up.

Her mother stayed on the line with Naz again for the rest of the day. And the day after that. She never heard from her perhaps-boyfriend.
Maybe he'd called his mother, too. Maybe he lost his shadow as soon as it hit Boston. It didn't really matter. She never called him either, in the end.

The day after that, her sister, Rojan, was on the line as well, both she and her mother crouched over her mother's mobile phone placed faceup on the kitchen table, shouting slowly and loudly so Naz could understand them. Naz broke down sobbing when she first heard Rojan's voice. She'd left Tehran University as soon as she could put all her research on hold, and took the first bus to their mother's home.

“What about your studies?” Naz had asked her.

“Fuck my studies,” Rojan said, to which her mother clucked her tongue, but for once didn't admonish her daughter for cursing. “Just deal with the fact that you need us, for once.”

Naz slowly explored the rest of the warehouse to make sure no one else was inside. Her mother ordered her to raid the staff refrigerator on every floor and eat everything in there first, and save her packed nonperishables. For breakfast, Naz had birthday cake, egg salad, and pickles. Rojan told her to turn on the laptop she found on top of the drum case, but its battery was dead and the charger was nowhere to be found, so her mother and sister relayed updates to her from the news on their television set instead. Cases had now been spotted in Wyoming, New Hampshire, California, and the D.C. area. Planes had been grounded, interstates closed. Some cities were practically under martial law. Sometimes the three of them didn't say anything at all. They just stayed on the line together. Every four hours, Naz went back to the wall outlet and lay on the floor while her phone was plugged in, to charge it back up before the call cut out.

“Where exactly is this studio?” Rojan kept asking her. “How do you spell
Dorchester
Street?” She became obsessive about it, about being able to pinpoint Naz's exact location. “What does the building look like? How many stories? What shape? What color is the outside?” She asked so many questions that their mother finally shouted at her to get her maps and pens out of the way or she was going to
throw them all in the trash, and started knocking what sounded like stacks of paper off the table as they argued.

“I know what you're doing. Don't try to come here,” Naz whispered into the phone to Rojan late that night, after their mother had fallen asleep.

“I won't,” Rojan replied.

“I mean it. Don't try to find me. It won't help anything.”

“I won't,” Rojan repeated, but Naz knew she was lying.

“Tickets are thousands of dollars anyway. The airports—”

“How much?” Rojan interrupted.

“I don't know, like probably twenty or more thousand to fly in now, because no one wants to come near,” Naz answered.


Fuck.

“And Boston airport is closed and under quarantine, I'm sure,” she finished. She dropped her voice lower. “I'm serious. I can hear people dying out there. It's not safe. Don't come.” She tried to think of something she could say that would force her sister to listen. “Stay with Maman. Don't leave her alone. Don't make it so that she has
two
daughters here instead of just one. Okay?”

Rojan made a small sound, like Naz had physically hurt her. “So what, you're just going to be alone over there, trying to survive without any help?”

“What would you coming do anyway?” Naz asked.

“I don't know, but
something.
Anything,” she said. “You're my sister, Mahnaz.”

“Don't come, Rojan,” Naz warned. “Don't leave Maman.”

She could hear Rojan breathing slowly on the other end of the line. It sounded like she was trying not to cry. “Okay, I won't come,” she finally said.

“Promise,” Naz ordered.

“I promise.”

Naz settled back against the wall and cradled the phone between her ear and shoulder. She still didn't know if she fully believed her
sister, but she also knew that if Rojan
was
still lying, arguing about it further wouldn't convince her. All it would do was wake their mother up when one of them started shouting.

“Can you see the stars?” Rojan asked in the silence.

“From the roof,” Naz said.

“Go up there.”

THE DAY AFTER, NAZ WOKE UP TO LIGHT RAIN PATTERING
against the windows.
I should try to collect that for drinking,
she thought groggily as she rolled over on the carpet to unplug her phone from the wall. But the charge was barely full.

Naz called, and her mother picked up crying. She and Rojan already knew from the news that the power had gone out in Boston overnight. “How much battery do you have left?” Was all she said.

“Seven percent,” Naz answered.

NAZ LEFT THE EARPIECE IN FOR WEEKS, EVEN THOUGH IT WAS
useless. She knew even then that it seemed a little crazy, but she kept talking to them as if they were there. She needed to. “Whew, that was heavy!” she'd say when she finished lugging down water from containers she'd found around the building and put open-faced on the roof. Or “Remember when we found out I'd been accepted to train here?” or “Did you hear that?” when an errant sound had terrified her in the middle of the night. It turned out to be a rat in the ventilation system, not a human.

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