Read The Book of M Online

Authors: Peng Shepherd

The Book of M (9 page)

Tomorrow was going to be a lot worse than today, I realized dimly as I sat in front of the fire, digging around in my own personal gallon of mint chocolate chip. There was so much that every single guest got their own container. And the day after tomorrow was going to be a lot worse than tomorrow. Today was probably the last good day. After I finished that ice cream and crawled under our blankets with you and fell asleep it was never going to go back up again. Only down.

“Want some rocky road?” you asked, and we swapped. The chocolate fudge was so gooey and sweet that it made the glands at the back of my jaw pinch painfully. That was probably never going to happen again either. A kind of sweetness so artificially strong that it could make my mouth ache.

Suddenly I was crying again, before I even knew what was happening.

“I have to pee,” I said hurriedly, and scrambled away from the fire before anyone else realized my eyes were swollen and red. I don't think you saw.

I stopped as soon as I left the manicured part of the hill and hit the trees, and found myself gulping desperately as I pressed the heels of my hands into my eyes.
I should have savored it more,
I thought.
I should have fought violently for my favorite flavor.
Then I realized someone else was already out here, probably doing the same thing in the trees.

“The ice cream?” Marion asked through the darkness.

I nodded. “It just . . .”—I tried to clear my throat—“it was so fucking good.”

Marion snorted gently in agreement. I could tell she dug the toe of her shoe into the dirt only by the sound of it grinding.

“It's the phones for me,” she murmured.

“Fuck,” I said. Her husband and daughter were still in San Diego. He'd had to skip the wedding to take care of their little girl who'd caught the flu. “Fuck, Marion.” I felt sick for having forgotten, in all the chaos. “What are you going to—”

“Don't,” Marion said. “I can't think of it directly. Not yet.”

I wanted to go to her, to hug her like we always did when one of us had just argued with a boyfriend or done poorly on an exam, but I didn't know how to. We stood there for a while, pushing rocks around with our feet instead, not saying anything.

There was no more ice cream. There was no more of a lot of things. But there was still you, Ory, here with me. That was something. That was more than hope.

Marion's outline, barely visible in the night, was leaning against a tree, holding some kind of leaf. It was so dark, I realized I couldn't tell if either of us still had a shadow anymore. I think that was the first time it occurred to me to wonder, and the last time I could ever have that thought without compulsively checking to make sure my own was still there. Of being able to do nothing else, not even breathe, until I saw that it was still a part of me.

“What do you think—” Marion spoke suddenly. “What do you think caused this?”

“I don't know,” I said. It was true. I didn't—not for sure.

She laughed. It didn't sound much like a laugh. “Rob and I separated,” she finally said. All the air went out of me. “Two weeks ago. Hallie doesn't have the flu. I was going to tell you at the reception, once we were drunk enough. But then Boston happened.”


“I know it's not karma,” she interrupted, cutting me off. “That would be—stupid. But I just can't help but . . .” She took a shaky breath. “You and Ory, Paul and Imanuel—happy. Here we all are at the end of the world, and you guys are here together. I'm the only one with marriage troubles—and look at where I am, where he is.”

“It's not karma,” I said, desperately. “Karma doesn't exist.”

“I know,” Marion replied. “But it sure seems like it, doesn't it?”

I didn't know what to say, but it didn't matter. I knew what she wanted me to know: that if she'd known somehow that it really was going to end now—not in some far future time, but now, right now—she never would have left him. She would have cherished all the moments. We waited in silence for what felt like hours.

“I'm going back now,” I finally said. I couldn't think of anything to comfort her. There was nothing to say, without looking at the truth of it head on—no way to offer hope without also reminding her that she might never see them again.

“I'm going to stay,” Marion answered.

When I reemerged from the woods and sat down beside you again at the fire, Rhino was standing, stating to the group that he was going to drag his blankets out onto the grass after we put the fire out, because now that there was no electricity and therefore no air conditioning, it was going to be disgustingly hot in the ballroom where we were all camped out.

He wasn't really announcing it, I knew as I watched him. It was more that he was trying to ask the rest of us to join him without begging outright. For comfort in numbers. I realized that none of us had even tried sleeping in our individual guest rooms once. After the wedding reception had been interrupted by the news about Boston, we'd all banded together in the ballroom and never left, save to retrieve our suitcases and bring them back down. The courtyard where Rhino wanted to sleep was a couple hundred feet from where the rest of us were still set up inside. Nine days ago, that wouldn't have been
enough distance for me to be from a random stranger. Now it felt terrifyingly far.

“That's a good idea,” you said. “Let's all move out here.”

Over the top of the flames, Rhino looked at you so gratefully it made my eyes tear again.

Mahnaz Ahmadi

sister again.

It was a few weeks after she finally took the Bluetooth headset off. She wasn't sure of the exact date, but it was snowing outside, which meant she'd been in the studio for four or five months by then. Hiding, talking to herself, and beginning to starve. She'd rationed well, but there was no food left in the entire building anymore, or in the duffel bag. She'd gone out a few times to the roof, but all she could see beyond the vast, empty parking lot was darkness and the glow of flashing police lights, and all she could hear were the echoing sounds of people crying or being killed. She had her bow, but it was no good in situations like that. In the open or one-on-one, she might win. But against a crowd, in a city, a bow was almost useless. In close quarters, she'd never stop every single one of a gang before one of them reached her and took her down.

She planned to jump. Or at least think about jumping, soon. Before the hunger made her too weak to find a quicker, more dignified death than starvation. Her mother had almost starved once, she'd told her. When the times were very bad. It was a way of leaving life that Naz never wanted to experience.

But that night, there was a small, solitary shape standing uncertainly in the center of the parking lot. A woman.

The sight didn't frighten Naz. She assumed the woman was just a ghost. Naz had seen the apparitions of her sister so many times after the phone cut off—in the hall, across the room, sleeping beside her. Why not also lurking among the empty car spaces, looking up at
her? She was about to ask it to point out some constellations, for old times' sake.

But then she saw that the ghost had a shadow.

“Mahnaz?” it called softly.

Naz was down every flight of stairs and out the front door before she even realized it. “Rojan?” she was screaming.

Rojan had run for the entrance too, and had been pulling on the front door before Naz had made it to the ground floor and flipped the lock. They tumbled backward into the dark warehouse in a tangle of limbs, and then clambered to slam the door shut behind them and do up the locks again.

“You promised. You
” Naz kept wailing, over and over. “You promised you wouldn't do this. You promised you wouldn't come.”

Rojan was clinging to her so hard she could feel her skin going numb and bloodless on the parts of her arms where Rojan held them. They kissed each other's cheeks until they had smeared the tears all over their faces, until all she could taste or see or breathe was stinging salt. “Thank God you're here.” Rojan sniffed, and kissed her again. “I was so scared—I thought I'd finally make it here and you already would have left or something.”

“You—you—” Naz could barely speak between the heaving sobs. The miraculousness of it was finally starting to pierce the anger. “You're really here.”

“I'm sorry,” she said. “I know I said I—” She reached down and pulled a wad of paper out of her pockets—handfuls of notes she'd made, neighborhood maps she'd tried to draw, descriptions of the building she was looking for—everything she'd written down from their phone conversations. “I just couldn't let you be alone.”

“But how did you get all the way here from Tehran?” Naz interrupted. “How did you even get out of the house without Maman freaking out?”

“What do you mean, ‘Maman freaking out'?” Rojan shook her head. “She's the only reason I
make it here. You think I just had thousands and thousands of U.S. dollars lying around in my student dormitory room for a plane ticket?”

Naz stared at her. “But—” She couldn't finish.

“The day after your phone died, she gave me everything she had. Emptied out her accounts. She
me to find you.”

Naz was shaking. “She . . . she . . . she helped you come here?” She ran her hands up and down Rojan's arms over and over, as if each time she did it she might discover Rojan wasn't real. But she was. And she was in Boston. And now she was going to die, too. “Here?
” Naz was screaming again, unable to control herself. “Didn't she hear me? What this place is like? Why would she help you come here? Why would you do it?!”

“There was a case in Tehran,” Rojan said softly. Naz fell into a stunned, paralyzed silence as the words sunk in.
There was a case in Tehran. There was a case in Tehran.
The words echoed in her mind, over and over.
There was a case in Tehran. It was everywhere now.
Rojan looked down at her hands as Naz swayed. “Naz, she
me come.”

Naz heard what more her little sister meant to say.
Because she wanted us to be together at the end.

They both sat in silence in the darkness. Naz reached out and took Rojan's hand and held it, and they stayed that way for a long time.

“It had only just happened—the shadowlessness. Tehran Airport wasn't a madhouse yet. I got to London fairly easily. But Heathrow was not what I expected. I got stuck there in ‘departures' for almost two months. I couldn't find a flight out that was going to the United States. All the airlines had just stopped going there. I ate out of the vending machines—they were having to refill them twice a day, there were so many of us. Finally I overheard someone saying Switzerland might be making U.S. flights, or was making flights to somewhere that was making U.S. flights. I managed to get to Zurich a week or
two after that, through Geneva. In Zurich, I found out the closest to Boston anyone was flying was Providence, in Rhode Island,” Rojan finally continued. “I mean, the sign said Boston, but they told us they were really flying to Providence—because it was safer, because for some reason that city is almost empty of people now—and we'd have to make our own way from there. They were charging—I don't even know. I just kept throwing money at the counterperson out of Maman's savings until the lady gave me a ticket. Someone tried to rob me after that, but the airport staff beat him off. I went in the bathroom and put everything I had left in my bra and underwear then. Not like it was much.”

“What happened in Providence?”

Rojan shrugged. “The guy sitting next to me on the flight said he has a daughter here in Boston somewhere. I gave him the rest of what I had in exchange for a seat in his rental car. Well, the car he found in the rental car parking lot and hot-wired. We split up at the roadblock on the freeway just outside city limits.”

“Fuck,” Naz said. “He could have killed you or something.”

“I—yeah,” Rojan admitted. “I kind of—I kind of can't believe I did it now. I just didn't know how else to get here.”

They sat close, shoulders touching, as they ate the last of the bags of airplane peanuts the stewardess had generously gifted Rojan on the flight. Naz's stomach ached ravenously. It was more food than she'd had in a long time. “So . . . what now?” she asked.

the only place nearby that Rojan thought she hadn't seen come up on the news by the time she left Tehran. It struck them as a little funny—that of course it would be New York that would survive when the shit hit the fan. “Things weirder than this probably happen in New York every day,” Rojan joked as she held open the duffel bag while Naz packed it with what little they could take from the studio.

“That's just movie New York,” Naz said, but still, a part of her had hope. If anywhere in the United States was still functional, she couldn't help but believe it would be New York, too. Although even if it wasn't, nothing was going to be worse than Boston. “Take off your necklaces,” she added. “They draw too much attention.”

“They're Maman's,” Rojan protested. “I'm not just going to leave them here.”

“Wrap them up and put them in the bag, then. You can't wear them.”

Rojan obeyed, reaching for a pillowcase. “How long do you think it'll take on foot?” she asked.

“If we really rush, ten days, maybe?”

Rojan nodded. “Good thing I packed soap.”

Naz smiled. She didn't have the heart to tell her sister that they weren't going to stop long enough at any point to allow washed fabric to dry, so there'd be no washing anyway. But they could survive each with a few pairs of underwear and the same bra. The bow was what she really needed to make sure they were safe, once they got out into the open country.

They had to get out first, though. The roadblocks were still in place all over the city, held by police and emergency military personnel, the main streets all locked down. There was only one place left the government couldn't monitor very well.

“The water.” Rojan grinned.

It was how she'd avoided the roadblocks and reached Naz in the first place, it turned out. After watching the man she'd shared a ride with turned away by police in riot gear carrying huge machine guns, Rojan had decided she didn't want to press her luck and started hunting for an unguarded street—but she couldn't find one. Sooner or later, she always ran into another roadblock or a roving patrol, blue and red lights dazzling the night. By accident she found herself crouching behind a small overturned boat in a trash heap to hide from a passing cluster of police, and that's when she got the idea.

“I dragged it up onto the bank where I came out and tried to hide it in the bushes,” she said. “I can show you where from the roof.”

Once they were ready, they went up for the last time. Rojan walked to the far side of the roof and pointed. From Dorchester Street, it was just a few turns from the shore of Old Harbor, where she was sure the boat was hidden. They waited until 1:30
exactly and then ran down the road as silently as they could in the pitch-blackness. Sure enough, the little metal boat was there, stuffed into the shrubs. As they dragged it the last few yards to the shore, Naz stepped into the icy water by accident with one foot and gasped in agony.

“Naz!” Rojan whispered, panicked.

“Fuck, that's cold!” Naz hissed.

“Don't do that! I thought something was wrong!”

wrong!” she snapped, but she shut up. Her sister was right, she could be freezing later. Rojan climbed into the boat and set her backpack and the duffel bag down, then put out a hand. Naz slipped the bow over her shoulder and grabbed Rojan's palm.

They rolled up their sleeves and paddled with their hands until their fingers were numb, because there were no oars. They drifted south, south, south. At some point in the darkness, they bumped into something floating. Naz's first thought was that it was a body, but thank God it wasn't—it was just a piece of wood.

When they finally found a shore that seemed far enough away, they crawled out of their own dinghy and crept between the carcasses of other half-sunk boats to the asphalt.

“Heritage Drive.” Rojan read the street sign overhead softly. She looked at Naz expectantly, waiting to hear if they'd gone far enough, if they were clear of Boston proper and the roadblocks.

“I think we're okay,” Naz muttered, dumbfounded. Somehow they'd paddled all the way to Quincy.
How far was that?
She tried to estimate.
Five, six miles?
“Let's go slow.” She pulled the bow off her back and kept it ready. The streets were even more unnervingly still than from where they'd come.

On the back wall of the next building, glowing under the flickering light of a roof security lamp, someone had graffitied a phrase in spray-paint.

“The One Who Gathers?” Rojan read softly. The name sent a chill through Naz as her sister said it. Rojan reached out and touched the bottom drip of paint—it was long dry. “What on earth do you think it means?”

Naz shook her head slowly. “I have no idea,” she said.

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