Read The Book of M Online

Authors: Peng Shepherd

The Book of M (8 page)

Naz asked Rojan which office she should move to when the music studio grew boring and small, then babbled about the pros and cons. She described what other floors looked like.

She asked her mother if they'd both known what would happen, would she still have cut Naz off to try to stop her from dating? If the shadowlessness had never come, would she have held out until she died, or given up and reached out? She asked if she might try to be better to Rojan than she had been to Naz, if Rojan wanted something else someday, too. Slowly, slowly, Naz stopped talking.

Orlando Zhang

AS SOON AS IT WAS LIGHT ENOUGH TO SEE, ORY SPRINTED.
Out of the shelter, down the mountain, all the way to the first ruin of road. That's where he stopped, jerked to a halt at the edge of that asphalt path.

He had no idea which way Max had gone.

The sun was out, burning so bright everything was white instead of yellow. It made the blow to the back of his head from the night before throb painfully. East, toward downtown Arlington, and then past the river to D.C., was slightly more traversable. West, toward Fairfax County and all the western cities like Falls Church and Oakton and Centreville, was overgrown and wild. Ory gritted through the headache, studying the ground for tracks, but there weren't any. There was too much grass and rock and not enough dust to see any footprints Max might have left.

How much of her memory had she lost, exactly? Even if it had been a devastating amount, there had to be some figment of it left that would have made her choose one path over the other. A spray of birds shot across the sky from one tree to another, screeching, then disappeared into the leaves. But what if whatever remained wasn't a part he knew?

The birds chattered again, and then fell silent. Every second that went by was a day. How far could a person who didn't know where they were going get? No explanation, no clues, no map. She had vanished without a single trace, as silently and mysteriously as had her shadow.

Where
did
the shadows go? Ory wondered. He didn't even care
about the why anymore. Only the where. The why was inexplicable. Ory didn't believe in magic, but he knew in his heart that what had happened was nothing that could be understood by humans. It was no natural disaster, no disease, no biological weapon. The best name he'd ever heard for it was
curse.
Because in the end it didn't matter who you were. No one escaped—either because they were someone who lost their shadow, or because they were someone who loved someone who lost their shadow.

Ory gritted his teeth. It was impossible to hope now, but he had to believe that the person he was chasing was still Max. Otherwise what would be the point of trying to find her? And if he was chasing Max, then there was only one direction she would have chosen. She'd try to go home. Not the shelter, but their real home. The apartment where they'd lived in D.C., before the Forgetting. Before they'd gotten in the car that weekend so long ago to drive into Virginia for Paul and Imanuel's wedding. Before everything.

Ory held his breath and ran east, straight into the low-hanging morning light, as if he could outrun his terror. If he could just make it far enough, the rising sun would turn into a bridge, and then he'd be in D.C. And Max would have to be there. She'd have to be.

THAT'S WHAT HE TOLD HIMSELF UNTIL HE COULDN'T RUN
anymore.

Odricks Corner had turned into a willow forest, curtains of leaves everywhere. For some reason, the sidewalks had been refashioned into spirals. Ory rested only long enough for the sweat to dry across his forehead. He went on with the gun out then.

Since Paul and Imanuel's wedding, neither he nor Max had returned to their apartment. She had wanted fiercely to go back, but it was too dangerous. Before the news went down, they'd seen the scenes from Boston, San Francisco, D.C.—fires, looting, roving gangs. There was plenty of food at Elk Cliffs Resort from
the wedding, and the slope of the mountain provided natural protection.

Over the years, as more and more of the other guests disappeared, or left to try to make it to their own homes, Ory became convinced that only their mountain was safe. Who knew what was lurking there in the east, in the great silent black hole that had been their capital. For a moment, he remembered the strange group he'd met on Broad Street, what their leader, Ursula, had said.
Bad things. Bad things are happening in D.C.

THERE WAS A RUSTLING IN THE HEDGES ALONGSIDE OLD
Cedar Road. Ory didn't like it there, in that part of Arlington. Houses lined both sides of the street, set far back, with low-hanging trees. No one was inside, but the shades behind the windows blinked languidly on their own from time to time, like drowsy eyelids. On the side of one garage, someone had scrawled in charcoal
The Dreamless One
and
The One Who Gathers.

There was more movement, a nervous shuffling. Ory looked and saw no dark shape there under the trembling leaves. He raised the gun and ran.

HE CROSSED UNDER THE I-495 IN LATE EVENING. WOULD MAX
have made it as far east as McLean in one day? Perhaps, but no farther. Ory had scoured the ground for signs of her as he went—a dropped supply he might recognize from their stash, a tear of familiar clothing, even a footprint—but had found nothing. Nothing from anyone at all, even. There was a shoe that had been in the gutter so long it was fossilized in mud. A ways after, there had been a bone, but it was old. So old he did not have to look away as he passed it.

In the night, Ory heard something inhumanly heavy cross the interstate, walking over the top of the overpass instead of below. He huddled closer to the dank concrete wall as it passed. Even with
the moon, it was so pitch-black, he could not have seen if there was a shadow or not. He didn't try to look. He held the wall and prayed the sound above would move on.

IN THE MORNING, HE CLIMBED ONTO THE OVERPASS TO SEE
what might have been there. But there were only wildflowers and a single car tire.

THE MORNING AFTER THE BOSTON EMERGENCY
BROADCAST, I
opened my eyes to the worst hangover I've ever had. Dim flashes of the night before returned. Marion, my best friend from high school who'd become almost as close to Imanuel as she and I were to each other, calling for calm. Jay “Rhino” White, someone's plus one—although we never quite figured out whose—declaring himself captain of an investigative scouting team he'd just created. Paul saying, “Fuck this, I'm getting the champagne,” and going to get it. All of it. “If this is the last day on earth, we can't waste a drop.” Do you remember that? I had to agree with him.

It all became a blur after the eighth glass. At some point during the night, I'd managed to get myself to our guest suite, pull the blankets and pillows off our bed, bring them back downstairs into the ballroom, and pick us out a spot on the east edge, in the corner where the wood wall met the glass one. I woke up with my face buried in your tuxedoed shoulder, which smelled of Bollinger, candle smoke, and cinnamon, somehow. The light through the trees was so clear it was blinding. Sharp, piercing beams cut through the branches and seared white shapes into the dark grass.

The news was still on the TV in the corner, the volume lowered so that only the people clustered beneath it could hear, to allow the rest of us to sleep. I tried to blink the world back into focus. Capitol Hill was on the screen, and then the Golden Gate Bridge replaced it, some kind of ticker running below.

“Ory.” I nudged your arm. “Wake up.”

You sat up slowly, but by the time you were fully upright, you looked alert. “What happened? Where else?” you asked. We both turned back to the TV.

“You're awake,” Rhino said when he saw us sitting. I noticed Paul,
Imanuel, and Marion already standing awkwardly next to him, as if ordered to be there. “Volunteer?” he asked hopefully.

That was how we became the first scouting party for the Elk Cliffs Resort survivors.

“They're for the occasional bear or wolf that wanders too close to the grounds,” the resort maître d', Gabe, said as he unlocked the
STAFF ONLY
closet. He brought out two shotguns and one hunting rifle. “Not even occasional, very rare.
Very
rare,” he corrected himself on instinct, still thinking of us as luxury guests. Maybe we all still did as well.

“How many bullets do we have?” Rhino asked.

“Enough for an exploratory trip down the mountain,” Gabe replied.

“Enough for hunting when we run out of food?”

“That's getting a little ahead of ourselves,” Ory said.

Rhino shrugged. “Is it, though?”

“What will the rest of us use?” I interrupted. There were six of us—you, Rhino, Paul, Imanuel, Marion, and me—and only three guns.

“Well, I can actually shoot,” Marion said. The others all looked at her. “I grew up on a ranch in Texas. A little cattle ranch. What?”

“Okay, one for Marion, one for me,” Rhino said. “Imanuel?”

“Give it to Ory,” Imanuel offered politely.

“Give it to
Max,
” Paul overrode him. You rubbed the back of your head, cheeks reddening.

It was not the right time to smile. Paul and I tried not to, without much success.

“This isn't soccer,” you protested weakly.

“Exactly,” Paul said. “It's worse. Definitely give it to Max.”

“What is the matter with you?” Imanuel whispered sharply to Paul. Paul finally choked, and the giggles escaped him in a strangled gasp. You had been the only kid in their high school to ever score a goal for the opposite team—
twice,
I finally explained to the rest of them as Paul collapsed into a fit of laughter.

We climbed down the mountain in silence, walking just next to the paved road that led up to the picturesque resort from Elk Cliffs Road. You, Paul, and Imanuel carried huge backpacks instead of weapons. “Odricks Corner,” Rhino said to us as we marched. “That's the first neighborhood we'll hit.” The trees opened up ahead.

I braced for the eerie, deserted silence of Boston we'd seen on the news after all the shooting stopped, but Odricks Corner was chaos. Cars blaring at each other, women herding families back and forth across streets, people biking with mountains of belongings strapped to their backs. Men defending laden shopping carts in parking lots with their lives.

“Food,” Marion said when she spotted a grocery store. It all dawned on us then. How much food did we have at Elk Cliffs Resort? Imanuel had booked caterers for the ceremony and reception, but how long would those leftovers last? How much was in their deep freezers for regular guests? How long would deep freezers last if the power went out? Would the power go out?

Rhino stayed outside with the guns, asking passersby for information. The rest of us went inside the shop and pulled everything we could find off the shelves. You, Paul, and Imanuel tried to look large and intimidating as Marion and I snatched whatever was left. Single shoppers approached, eyed the five of us, then slunk away for other aisles.

“Grab the rice,” Marion hissed at me as we wheeled ourselves into the never-ending line to pay. I grabbed as many as I could. In a strange way, it reminded me almost of something she and I might have done in university with our friends, while too drunk: run to the campus food store just before it closed and play various games—who could fit inside the plastic shopping cart seat like a kid again, who could swipe an entire shelf into the basket at once without dropping a single item, who could finish their list first and race to
the checkout line before the other teams. But no one was laughing this time.

“Please—I have children,” a woman behind us said. We turned around. Her cart was a third as full as ours, with food half as useful. The shelves were almost bare by then. “I have children,” she repeated. I wanted to crumble inside.

“We have children, too,” Marion lied before any of us could answer. She knew me too well. She stepped in front of us, between me and the woman, so I had no choice but to set the rice back down into our own cart.

“Please,” the woman said again, but weaker this time. “No, it's all right.”

“Has it reached Arlington yet?” Paul asked her gently. “We're all—we're on vacation. With our kids. We only just found out.”

“I don't know,” she said. “But I think Maryland, at least. I saw something like that on the news. That's when I came here. My sons are still at home.”

“It's in D.C.,” the man in line ahead of us said. He held up his phone. “They caught a guy downtown near the Verizon Center this morning.”

The woman moaned. She sank lower over her cart.

“How are we going to pay for this?” I suddenly whispered to you. “I didn't bring my purse.” It was probably a month's worth of food, and all I had was a handful of crumpled bills in my jeans pocket from the day before, from when you had to pay a toll fee on the highway into Virginia from D.C., to reach Elk Cliffs.

“Put it on my card,” Imanuel said. “Wedding expenses.”

“Oh, God,” the woman behind us said suddenly. We turned to look at her. She was holding her wallet as if it were white-hot porcelain, searing her fingers, but too precious to drop. “Oh, God.” We all looked inside. The dark green ink on the bills had somehow vanished. The papers were completely blank.

“What the fuck,” Marion said in horror. “What is that?”

“My children,” the woman wailed. “I have to feed my children!”

“I'll pay for it!” I gasped. I was crying, terrified. I tried to shove whatever bills were in my pocket at her, desperately pressing them against her chest. Far at the front of the line, a fight broke out. People began to yell. Then we all realized that my money had become the same impossible blank things as well.

Three days after that, reports said that almost everyone in D.C. was now shadowless. We sat in circles around the main ballroom TV, cutting marshmallows into tiny pieces and eating them slowly, to make them last. The brand on the front of the bags was a name I couldn't read. The letters looked like they had once spelled something, but didn't quite look like letters anymore. Rhino suggested we start trying to hunt game for food in the forest around the resort with the guns.

Philadelphia, Baltimore, then Arlington. After that, Elk Cliffs Resort lost power, because we were on the Arlington grid.

The day after there was no more electricity, Rhino and Marion returned from the far side of the mountain stumbling under the weight of a small elk. The wedding band made a fire in the fancy stone pit in the courtyard using the strange, empty dollar bills as kindling. We burned it all. Not a single person kept even one piece.
We wanted it gone. They roasted the elk while you, me, and a couple of other guests from Paul's side went through what was left in the kitchen and separated it into “eat tonight, before it goes off,” “eat within the next few days,” and “save as long as we can.”

The singer didn't want to sing that night, or anymore. The rest of the band played something instrumental, and we all feasted on elk steak, shrimp, random fillets of fish, and a metric fuckton of ice cream.

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