Read The Book of M Online

Authors: Peng Shepherd

The Book of M (5 page)

Their cameraman and reporter started sending video back to their little news studio in Los Angeles, but within minutes it was all over the international networks: the Nashik Cherubs were also starting to forget things.

Orlando Zhang

4—Max can't touch the gun.

The shells were in a box on the floor of their closet, like a pile of discarded body parts. He loaded the gun, then in pairs he fed the rest into the pockets of his pants until the box was empty. Then he grabbed all three of his moth-eaten sweaters and put them on one over the other, and covered them with the red
Elk Cliffs Resort—STAFF
windbreaker he'd found in the housekeeping office. Max's clothes were still there in neat piles, but it looked as though some were missing. A shirt or two. Maybe she had seen the stack on her way out of the shelter and still been clearheaded enough to take some. Ory hoped that's what had happened. There was no blood anywhere, nor signs of struggle, so he had to believe that she had left by herself and not as someone's hostage. All he had to do then was find her. Find her fast.

Next was supplies. Matches, first-aid kit, flashlight. Again, some of it seemed like it was missing. He was sure they'd collected more boxes of matches than what was in the drawer. Maybe they hadn't. Or maybe Max had forgotten the exact number they owned and thus changed it, the way she had with the color of the knife handle. Ory stood there at the useless sink, cabinet drawer open, staring at a pair of scissors and the blank space beside it where he could have sworn they kept a spare. It was hard to tell.

Last, a photograph of Max.

In the floorboards by his side of the bed, he'd carved a simple trapdoor. He pulled his old wallet out and gently wiped the dust off. One debit card, one credit card, four dollar bills, a gym membership card, and his driver's license.

Ory eased the license out of the plastic window. If the Forgetting ever happened to him, this would be his tape recorder, he thought. Name, date of birth, height, weight, a tiny photograph of his face. It wouldn't tell him anything he really needed to know, like that Max was his wife and he would step in front of a bus for her, that they had no children, that they met at a football game he almost didn't go to and then almost left early from, that he was absurdly good at skiing, or that he was secretly terrified of bees. But it would at least tell him his name. And it also was a shield for the thing that really mattered. A wallet-size photograph of Max.

It was from the night before Paul and Imanuel's wedding—after the shadows had disappeared in India, Brazil, and Panama, but before it had gone much further than that. That evening the guests all had been in the hotel ballroom just downstairs from where he was standing now, eating chocolates and drinking champagne. Paul and Imanuel had opened some of the gifts early, and one of them had been a Polaroid instant camera that produced tiny, refrigerator-magnet-sized instant photos.

The camera was passed around as the party got later, and when Ory got ahold of it, he took a picture of Max. She had been standing right at the open French doors that led out into the courtyard, but the light from inside was bright enough that when she turned to look at him as he said, “Excuse me, ma'am,” her face was bathed in a yellow glow that made her eyes shimmer. “Blue,” he said. He snapped it just as the smile had started to spread across her lips.

One of the other women pulled her away to gossip about something before it was done developing, so Ory stood there in the night air just outside the doors, shaking the film lightly, peeking every few seconds to see if it had finished. By the time he found her again and she pressed another flute of Dom Pérignon into his hands and whispered in his ear, breath hot, her voice light with a hint of buzz, “You are not going to
what Imanuel just told me about the second groomsman,” she'd forgotten he'd taken a picture of her at all.

Ory slid the photo back in and put his driver's license securely on top of it. Even though she was all done up, hair pulled into a messy bun and makeup on, Max still looked almost the same, and it would do for showing people he passed, if he ever passed anyone, to ask if they'd seen a woman who looked like this. Assuming they could remember how to speak, or anything they'd seen at all.

Back in the main room, the paper that had been taped to the inside of their door since the beginning caught his eye again. There was one rule he and Max had made, long before she'd lost her shadow and they had made the rest of them. Rule Zero, they had started calling it after they'd written the list. He pulled it down and crumpled it into a withered ball. There was no way Max could not have seen it when she left. What did that mean? How much had she forgotten?

They'd made Rule Zero when they became the only ones left at the hotel. For months there had been no electricity, no running water, then no radio. Then finally there were no other guests. They couldn't avoid the conversation about it any longer.

“It's not fair,” Max had said. “If it was me that went missing, you'd come after me.”

“No, I wouldn't,” Ory replied. It didn't even sound believable to him.

“Yes, you would,” Max argued. “Besides, it's different. You go out all day, and I stay here most of the time. If I disappeared, it would be because I lost my shadow and forgot to stay, so of course you shouldn't follow then!”

“Don't—” He grimaced. It felt like tempting fate to ever mention the possibility it could happen to either of them.

“I only meant, if you were the one who didn't come home, it would probably be because you were injured somewhere and needed my help.”

“I'll make sure to get killed, then, so there's nothing to come help.”

“Ory,” Max said, her voice horribly small.

The silence settled between them, heavy. “Sorry,” he finally murmured.

They looked down at dinner—one plastic bag of potato chips. What he'd found the last time he'd gone out.

“I just can't,” Max said. “It would be one thing if one of us forgot. But if you go missing while you're out looking for food, I'm going to go to where you said you went and try to find you.”

“That's not the deal,” Ory said.

“That's as good as you're going to get,” she shot back. “I'll give you that if one of us forgets, the other doesn't go after. I can't do any more than that. Okay?”

“Okay,” Ory finally said. He used paper from the abandoned guest book—wrote the rule in silence and hung it up.
You never go after the other person if they forget
. They didn't speak for the rest of the evening.

It was the best they could do, but it wasn't enough. Over the next few weeks, Ory stopped telling Max where he went to scavenge for scraps each day, or if she refused to let him out the door without an answer, lied so blatantly she knew it was so. Eventually she stopped asking, because she knew what he was doing.

Later that night, after they'd made Rule Zero, Ory used a tiny bit of the precious soap they had left. The shelter had contained boxes and boxes of surplus inventory, back when it was Elk Cliffs Resort, and in the early days they'd squandered it. Bathing whenever they liked, washing their hair at least once a day. It made things still feel normal. They realized too late that what had looked like an endless supply in the housekeeping closets actually wasn't. They now had two hundred toothbrushes left, but no more toothpaste. Nine hundred towels, but barely any body wash. Now they were trying to stretch what was left, bathing only every few days, and only washing the essential areas. He dipped his finger into the plastic container and tried to scrape every millimeter of excess back in. Only what was needed. He reached down, away from his face and hair, and worked the slippery cleansing film over his testicles. He pulled back the foreskin, trying to spread the soap upward, working painstakingly to scrub away the vague, inescapable musk.

Max was already in bed when he toweled off after his bucket bath and slipped into the darkness of the bedroom. He crawled in next to her, naked, self-conscious. Her breathing echoed softly in the darkness. When soap was infinite before, bathing never used to mean anything. It didn't reveal things one didn't want announced so clearly. But now, with so little left, and bathwater from rain that they were collecting in buckets on the roof, it somehow became shameful. There was no subtlety in a world without soap. No room to pretend what one desperately needed and what one could skip tonight, no big deal, only if you feel like it, too.

Ory touched her back, under the tickling puff of her hair, and his fingers brushed against a T-shirt. Max rolled over, pulling him into a lazy hug, and he felt her realize he was nude and still damp mid-embrace—her arms paused for an instant, legs half-entwined with his own, her body recalibrating with dawning understanding. Ory withered, but he dug around clumsily for the bottom hem of her shirt anyway, trailed his hands upward inside of it until he felt the silken, heavy curve of her breasts.

She drew him closer and took hold of his slackening stiffness with one hand. Her fingers wrapped around firmly, and she pressed her other hand over his own on her breast through the fabric.

He tried to forget. The soap. Being the only ones left. Rule Zero. Everything. Her hands moved, warm, pulling him toward her.

He couldn't.

to search for Max. His head had stopped bleeding. He sat on the edge of the bed waiting for first light, too tense to sleep.
If only,
Ory thought to himself.
If only.
If only he'd come home three hours earlier. If only he hadn't chased the rabbit. If only he hadn't gone to Broad Street again.
If only. Max would still be here.

He picked up the ball of paper with Rule Zero on it from the floor and crumpled it further, crushing it until it had compacted into
something the size of a walnut. It had looked the same as all the rest of the rules when he'd written it, hanging mutely around the abandoned hotel in their relevant places.
You never go after the other person if they forget.
But the rule was always meant to apply only to Ory. Never the other way around. This—now—this was not how Rule Zero was supposed to play out, not the way things were supposed to happen. This was not an unfortunate scouting accident. It was his fault. His fault that he didn't return home in time to stop Max from leaving because she had forgotten she was supposed to stay.

Ory surveyed the shelter for the last time. The more he thought about it, the more sure he was that none of it made much sense. Max knew how dangerous it was out there, so the fact that she was gone likely meant that the Forgetting had accelerated, that she was starting to bleed memories like a sieve losing sand. That much was clear. But from the early cases they'd all seen, before the TV networks and the internet went down, it was usually terrifying. Victims were panicked and sometimes violent because they couldn't figure out what was happening or where they were, or even who they were, but still had a grasp on other far-flung parts of their minds.

In Max's case, she'd been calm enough not to scramble through all their belongings, trying to parse back together her history from the clues. She had still shut the door when she left, and had maybe taken some food and supplies with her on her way out. It was eerie.

And she had taken the tape recorder with her. Ory had searched the entire shelter, and was sure of it. It was nowhere there.

Mahnaz Ahmadi

before the humidity became too unbearable. From June to August, Boston was like the inside of a clay baking tagine. It was almost worse than Tehran. She had to get up at four
, but would still watch the news for updates on Hemu Joshi's condition while she dressed in darkness before pulling herself away to go to practice.

It only got worse. By the third week, Hemu had forgotten almost everything about his life. He couldn't recognize his mother, and when asked if he had any siblings, couldn't name his brothers. He could recite his phone number but not his address. He knew he was born and raised in Pune, but didn't seem to know that Pune was in India or that India was a country. Then he forgot what cricket was.

On the archery range, Naz tried to concentrate, but her mind wasn't there. She wondered if she should go back. India was scarily close to home. Her sister emailed and said to stay, not to give up her training, that there was nothing she could do in Iran to help anyway. Naz hid her phone in her sports bra between shots, then would lean down so her hands were hidden and text someone—her next-door neighbor, her friends back in Tehran—anyone, it didn't matter. They were all talking about the same thing.
Did you see the test where HJ could only remember 4 of the days in a week?
HJ just tried to list all the streets in his neighborhood, did you watch that one?

Yeah. Did you see the clip where they showed him pics of his classmates from high school and he tried to name them?
they'd reply. It was constant. After a few days, Naz started to worry she was going to get kicked off the team, but then she peeked down the line of targets and realized
the other archers were all doing the exact same thing.
Go to CNN live stream, they have an update.

She kept waiting for good news, but there never was any. Only bad and worse. Then the Angels of Mumbai began to follow Hemu's path as well, just like the Nashik Cherubs. All suffering various degrees of amnesia, with no discernible pattern across age, sex, education, or geography. There was one woman from Mumbai who seemed to be decaying the slowest, while one of the teenagers from Nashik had completely forgotten all the facts of his childhood and his ability to speak Marathi, the local dialect, within five days of becoming shadowless.

Scientists from every country took over the television channels, armed with hypotheses and ideas for experiments to explain why the shadows never came back, or why without one, a mind starts to flake away like ash on a cindered log. In India, doctors ran test after test on Hemu, trying to prove it was early-onset Alzheimer's, trauma-induced amnesia from one too many cricket balls to the head, stress from the fame, hippocampal damage due to alcoholism he didn't have, whatever. They took a brain scan from a patient in the United States—a middle-aged man who had suffered total and permanent retrograde amnesia in a car accident just a few weeks before Hemu Joshi's own case appeared—to compare to that of Hemu. Patient RA, he was dubbed by the media, to protect his privacy. Oddly, there was nothing abnormal about Hemu's images. The news reported that the two men even met, the American amnesiac and Hemu Joshi. They flew Patient RA from New Orleans all the way to Pune for a week, to see if talking to another person suffering a similar affliction might knock something loose.

It didn't. Patient RA flew back home with his entourage of doctors, to return to his assisted-living facility. After that, videos of Hemu never appeared on air again. Naz didn't know what that meant.

Reports about the other shadowless from Mumbai and Nashik still filled every broadcast, though. The experiments grew wilder as
the scientists grew more desperate. They shocked them, hypnotized them, starved them of sleep and then tried to plant memories in their delirious states, cut into their brains. Nothing worked. It sounded silly, but Naz knew there was no other way to say it. The earth's rotation aside, what happened to them wasn't science. It was magic.

Even so, she couldn't stop staring at the scientists poking at them on the news, whenever they gave interviews. The world kept following. Everyone hoped they would all get better. That they'd remember who they were, that they'd recognize their families again. But they never did.

She probably would've kept watching forever, rooting for them, but eventually she had to stop. There was just nothing left to watch. Stories about the shadowless disappeared from broadcasts, and even the skeleton crews pulled back, until there was no coverage at all. It seemed to be the end.

Until eight days later, a curly-haired kid in Brazil looked down during lunch recess and realized he didn't have a shadow anymore. And then two days after that, he couldn't remember his own name.

hours after the news broke, announcing that he'd closed Brazil's borders to all international travel, to help contain whatever this was. Brazilians abroad weren't allowed to return, and noncitizens could go only as far as their embassies. It was an international outrage, but no other country dared to actually retaliate or rescue their citizens by force—they'd have to send soldiers in for that. Into the place where shadows were disappearing.

The kid's family vanished. There was
tape up around their property on the news, and the Brazilian government released a statement that said they'd been taken into custody in order to provide them “the best treatment possible.” The phrase chilled Naz. Their neighbors put themselves into self-imposed quarantine. None of them lost their shadows. Americans camped angrily
out in the consular hall of the U.S. embassy in São Paulo. Australians built a giant barbecue on the front lawn of their own. Naz emailed Rojan about going home again, but tickets had jumped to $15,000. Airports everywhere but Brazil were overrun with desperate travelers trying to run to—or run away from—somewhere. So instead, Naz just held her breath, hoping it was some kind of strange fluke.

But it wasn't. Another case showed up on the other side of Brazil, completely unconnected, near the border with Peru. Then a week after that, it seemed like all the shadows in Panama disappeared at the same time.

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