Read The Book of M Online

Authors: Peng Shepherd

The Book of M (2 page)

Orlando Zhang

because it wasn't really so much a hotel as it was a “shelter,” was built on a high peak in the center of Great Falls National Park, overlooking Arlington and the other suburbs of northern Virginia. It meant Ory had to hike down every time he went to the city. But it also meant anyone from the city would have to hike
to it. He passed the wooden post where he'd long ago removed the sign that used to point the way.
, it once had read.

When the last radio signals went quiet, Ory had made some renovations to the shelter, so it wasn't obvious from the outside that anyone lived there. He taped up all but one of the windows with cardboard to hide his and Max's movements, and then did the same to some of the other deserted guest rooms in the building, so their own would not stand out to anyone from the outside, if anyone ever came so close. He dragged broken furniture into the front yard, bent fence posts, burned fire marks into the exterior walls. Any food they did find, he kept on the ground floor, in the abandoned ballroom where they'd once watched the sparkling color and whirl of Paul and Imanuel's wedding, eternal years ago. They would lose it all if someone found them, but maybe that would be all they would lose, he reasoned. He killed a rat he caught in the basement, smeared its blood over the wood floor in the entryway, and let it stain—one word from the oldest language that was always understood.

It worked, for a time. For two years, they survived that way. Some days Ory even felt safe. But that all had ended last week, when Max lost her shadow.

When they'd finally stopped crying, they made one last change. They came up with a set of rules about things that could be dangerous for Max to do, once she forgot more. “
Ory had insisted, not
but Max just shook her head.
” she repeated. She'd gone to get the last of their scrap paper because Ory had refused to move.

Max didn't need them yet, but it was better to begin practicing earlier rather than later, she'd said. So they'd already know what to do once—
—the time came. After they'd finished writing, she carefully folded and tore the paper into strips and had Ory tape each rule near the place where she'd need it—the front door, the guest kitchenette, and so on. That way, in case she forgot that they had made rules in the first place, she'd still see them before doing something she didn't want to do.

They knew it wasn't perfect, but it was the best they could come up with. They didn't know what else to do.


1—Max doesn't leave the shelter without Ory.

2—Max can use the small knives to prepare food unsupervised, but not the fire.

3—Max can never answer the door.

Max still knew him, knew his voice, but Ory always carried a key when he left, and had hidden another in the courtyard, inside a false rock he'd scavenged from a deserted housing goods store. He didn't want to ever get into the habit of knocking and asking her to let him in, no matter how tired or injured he was or how much he was carrying. Because even though it was fine now, later it wouldn't be. Because later, she might remember that he lived with her, but not that no one else did. That everyone else had left the mountain and the hotel a long time ago. Later, if he was out looking for food and Max
was alone, it would be too dangerous to ask her to remember that she let one person in every evening when he came home—Ory—but not another.

4—Max can't touch the gun.

Just in case.

That one made him sick to think about. He didn't want to write it down. It felt like betraying her somehow—as if his believing that she'd forget who he was would somehow cause it to happen.

Max made him write it anyway. Just in case.

blood, Ory never asking her to let him inside instead of using a key. But in the early days, it might have saved their lives. The streets were in constant flux then, changed one way from a bad memory and then changed again from another. Ory'd had to check every direction through a pair of binoculars before he could move a step, for fear of being ambushed by shadowed men or mauled by terrified shadowless. But now there were no shadowed ones left, because they'd turned into shadowless, and almost no shadowless either, because they couldn't remember that they should stay. Now everything was always still. Nothing moved, nothing made noise, nothing changed. There was no one left to change it. Shops became lonely graveyards, houses became monuments.

There were very few places he was ever worried about running into another living soul anymore. But Broad Street, where he was heading, was one of them.

When Ory reached the Falls Church neighborhood, he began to jog. He did not follow the roads. Instead, he cut through abandoned backyards in a straight line between the shelter and Broad Street, to make up for the late start. Most of the houses had no fences, and when they did, the wood was long since rotted. Even though he'd stayed in
bed with Max for another half hour after they'd finished making love, there would still be enough time to search, Ory reasoned. He pried apart a pair of sagging planks and slipped through into a ruin of tall grass. There was still plenty of time. And even if there wasn't, it had still been worth it.
I need to make Max more presents,
he thought. Or—maybe it was just that he was in such a good mood after the sex that the joke struck him as funny instead of horrible—he could just keep giving her the same present over and over, and she'd love it every time.

Don't laugh at that,
Ory scolded himself.
That's terrible. You're a terrible person.
But he did anyway. Quietly.

Twenty minutes later, he was a cul-de-sac away from Broad Street.

Broad Street again after the last time they'd searched there, more than a year past. It also had been the last time they'd run into another person.

Ory stayed crouched in the undergrowth and watched the weathered row of apartments that lined the infamous road. Beyond the empty stretch of grass and across the asphalt, nothing gave itself away.

The person they'd met that day had been a shadowless, only a few weeks gone. The man had remembered just enough to know it was bad not to have a shadow, but didn't remember how it worked. He tried to take Ory's.

Ory shuddered at the sudden memory of sharp, dirty carbon steel against his skin. The shadowless had been a firefighter before the world ended, still in his giant flame-retardant coat when they had seen him wandering around. His coat, his helmet, his boots—and his metal fireman's axe, gripped tightly in his right hand.

Neither Ory nor Max were doctors, back when there were jobs. It was pure luck that he hadn't lost the arm or died.

They'd argued about it a few times before, but Max won after that.
Abundant as Broad Street was, Ory promised her that he wouldn't go again. No matter how desperate, how starving.

They'd said nothing about what would happen if she forgot the promise, though.

Ory put his hand on the butt of his knife in its holster, and crept across the street toward the entrance of the apartment complex. The wind picked up and a gust of dead leaves swept past, hissing. He cleared the communal front lawn as fast as he could, aiming straight for the first door. He didn't stop until he was crouched against the front wall, shoulder scraping the brick facade. He pressed his ear to the wood and listened: for footsteps on rotting floorboards, whispered instructions between family members or reluctant allies, the zip of a travel pack, light snoring. Nothing.

Ory took out the knife and tried to steady his grip. He hated this part the most.

“Do it, Ory,” he murmured, for courage. He always tried to imagine Max's voice was saying those things. “There's no one in there. There hasn't been for a long time.” He heaved himself against the door.

The rotted wood gave way, and he slipped into the lobby of the building, knife pointed.

The room was empty.

Ory closed what was left of the door behind himself so he couldn't be seen from the street. Waited for his eyes to adjust to the dim glow of weak sun on glittering dust, and for the pounding in his rib cage to ease. The knife slid slowly back into its leather sheath.

There were scuff marks on the wood floor. Deep grooves that had been there long enough to have healed over from the odd rain through the shattered windows. He cleared the lobby and leasing office and began his search, but all the units on the ground floor were bare. Someone had made good use of whatever furniture had been there. The kitchens were similarly picked over; the doors of the cupboards were gone, drawers missing. Ory stared at the empty open shelves in one apartment, trying to imagine what they used to
look like full of boxed food. The silver faucet fixtures on the sink had vanished, too.

The next floor was just as empty, and the one after. On the fifth floor, he couldn't go past the doorway of most units, because the stench was too strong. The remains of whoever had lived in those were still inside. Ory cleared the first tower block and moved to the second. Fire, then flood damage. A gym where all the exercise machines resembled gleaming metal horses, posed mid-gallop. The vending machines played music, even though there had been no electricity for years. Elevator shafts gaped, doors jammed open.

The third block still had a front door. Ory went much more slowly, encouraged. All the furniture, but no food, no clothes. One of the units reminded him a little of their own apartment, back in D.C.—if it was even still there. It had the same sort of classic modern style of Max's that had impressed his parents when they'd come to visit. He checked the walls for hollow places, where something might have been hidden inside. In the bedrooms, he saw the names.

In the early days, when there were more wedding guests still hiding with Ory and Max at Elk Cliffs Resort and they took more group trips down the mountain to brave Arlington, seeking supplies or information, he had seen them. Written on shelves in stores where the aisles had been picked clean, spray-painted onto the backs of buildings. People who still trusted others enough to talk whispered from the narrow mouths of alleys.
Have you heard about the Stillmind? The One Who Gathers?
They traded food for information, rallied curious crowds to make mass pilgrimages into the strange lands to see if they could find out more. Someone in this apartment had scrawled
The One with a Middle but No Beginning
in charcoal over where the bed should have been. Ory touched the tail of one smudged letter softly, powdering his fingertip in dark gray. Those few left with shadows were just the opposite, he thought. All beginning, no middle. Middle had become an ever-shifting, never-ending apocalypse.

A soft crack broke the silent complex. Ory flinched, ducked instinctively to the floor before he'd breathed. His knife was out again.

He counted to five. The sound had been dull, as if it had come from outside, some ways off. He peeked over the edge of an overturned dresser, toward the open wall that should have been a glass sliding door to a small back deck. There was some struggling grass, and another looming dead apartment tower beyond the sagging wooden fence.

“Trees,” he said to himself. “Just trees.” The area was wildly overgrown. It reeked of rotting mulberries. When he looked closer at the ground, he could see the white ones that had dropped from overhead before they were ripe, like little pale maggots. “Keep going, Ory. Do the upstairs bedrooms,” he ordered himself. He pried his hand away from the hunting knife and crept down the hall toward the steps.

He stayed away from the windows, half kneeling on the floor. His heart jumped as he peeled back the dirty carpet in the closet and found a section of wood floor had been cut into a tiny trapdoor—but someone else had already discovered it. Whatever had been in there, it was empty now. Ory left the carpet rolled and didn't bother putting the door to the little hiding spot back. Save someone else the same letdown. If there was anyone left in the city. It had been so long, Ory had started to think he and Max might be the only two left in Arlington, maybe farther.

He might be the only one, soon.

The soft crack sounded again, and he threw himself to the floor. The animal part of the brain that built blueprints was racing, searching for an escape: there was a bed frame, but no mattress to hide under. A closet with no door. Window too high. To be upstairs was bad. Too far from a way out.

Then a pealing scream, high-pitched, hysterical. Ory froze.

He knew that sound.

He was down the stairs, out the back door of the unit, into the grass, dashing toward the shriek in an instant.

It was a rabbit, and that was its unmistakable dying cry.

A fox or coyote would bolt, maybe drop its prey if he could get close enough. There had been no food in the apartments, but damn it if he was going to go home with nothing at all. He and Max would eat rabbit tonight, fresh, succulent meat that hadn't been dried and salted and sitting in their cupboard for three months. If he could give Max the memory of a delicious, freshly cooked meal for as long as she had left, maybe that was worth more than five cans of tasteless, cold non-perishables, now or ever.

Ory sprinted past the second row of apartment buildings to the back courtyard where the community pool was, hands already outstretched to spook an animal. But as soon as he rounded the corner, he stopped dead.

“Oh, shit,” he finally managed. It came out like a squeak.

Thirty feet ahead of him, gathered in a casual circle on the empty pool's cool deck, was an entire crowd of people watching the one in the center take a rabbit out of a makeshift trap. They turned to him one by one, eyes calmly sliding from their prey to Ory cowering in the middle of the grass.

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