Read The Book of M Online

Authors: Peng Shepherd

The Book of M (3 page)

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“Oh, shit,” he repeated, dumbstruck.

There were so many of them. He hadn't seen so many people at once for so long. He hadn't even seen a single other person but Max for at least a year.

And they were all armed.

Do something,
he thought wildly. Some looked surprised, others amused. They were all healthy, all clean. Their hair looked washed, their clothes mended. There were no hollow cheeks, no bones jutting out. The men's arms were nourished enough to have muscle. More muscle than his own.
Run, Ory. Fucking run.
But he couldn't move. He just stood there staring at them all.

The one in the center finally stood up. It was an older woman, with a worn face and graying hair shaved close to her skull. Ory watched, petrified, as she gently let go of the rabbit wriggling in
her iron grip, as if it was nothing, as if there were still three grocery stores at every intersection, and didn't even cast a glance after it as the terrified creature shot off into the weeds to safety. Silently, she stepped through the group to the front. Her eyes were hard-lined, mouth frowning. And now in her hands was a bolt-action hunting rifle, already cocked. Slowly she lifted the long dark barrel and pointed it at him.

“You're too late,” she said.

Orlando Zhang

ORY STARED AT THE WOMAN IN SHOCK. AT THE WEATHERED
hunting rifle swaying gently in her easy, sure grip. The muzzle hovered just south of his sternum.

“You're too late,” she repeated.

Too late? Too late for what?

“He's gone,” another of them said, and spat.

“He's not gone, he's got a shadow. Look.” The woman pointed at the ground behind Ory with the neck of her gun, like it had always been part of her arm. His shadow was huddled on the grass, a withered shape of terror.

“Too late for what?” Ory finally managed. It had been so long since he'd talked to another person besides Max that it felt strange to speak to them, as if he'd forgotten what language was and accidentally made sounds that weren't words. His hunting knife felt pitifully light on his belt now as he cowered.

They all looked at one another, as if trying to decide what he'd meant by that.

“To join us,” the man next to the woman with the gun said. The smoke from his homemade cigarette was bitter. “No seats left. The group's already long been set.”

“I—” Ory glanced nervously between them, trying to glean the man's meaning from their faces.

“Twelve is the most,” he continued. “Only have room for twelve.”

Ory didn't know what to do. He edged his hands up even higher over his head, trying to show he wasn't a threat.

The woman in front finally lowered the barrel of her rifle slightly. “You haven't been out much, have you?” she asked.

Ory shook his head.

They all looked from one to another silently again. Ory snuck a glance at the cracked, weathered cool deck where they were gathered. Twelve bodies, four shadows.
Four
shadows. He stared.
Four. Shadows.

Finally they all looked back to the woman at the front, one by one, waiting for her verdict.

“You have anyone?” the woman asked. She was one of the four.

“Yes,” Ory said. “She, uh . . .” He gestured lamely to his own silhouette.

That seemed to soften them. The wrinkles in the woman's face deepened, and she scratched the short velvet buzz on her head with the back of her hand. “How long?”

“Seven days.” He tried not to think of how many were left. How many more days that she'd still talk in funny voices when he was upset until he laughed. How many more days that she'd bravely attempt to make meals out of their scant ingredients, even though she was the worst cook they'd both ever met. How many more days that she'd sit in silence with him in the mornings and watch the sun come up through their tiny kitchenette window. He loved those sunrises with her.

“I'm sorry.”

Ory shook his head, refusing to accept the sympathy. Sympathy made things real. “She's very strong. She's only really just started forgetting,” he said. He tried not to stare at the group of shadowless at their center. He wanted to ask them what to do. How far gone were they? Did they have rules? How were they making it work? Most of all, how were the ones with shadows not afraid of the ones without? At what they might do at any moment—like the deer, or maybe worse—if they forgot something?

“That's pretty impressive for seven days,” one of the shadowless ones whistled. His blue eyes were unnaturally clear.

“He doesn't even remember which one of us he's related to,” a woman next to him joked, and a couple of them laughed. The shadow
less man grinned sheepishly. After they quieted, two women with jet-black skin muttered, “Tell him already,” to the one with the gun.

“You ought to head south, to New Orleans,” she said at last. “Something's happening there.”

“What's happening?”

“We don't know,” she confessed. “But something. Everyone's heading for it. Arlington's almost emptied out; we're the last group that we know of. We were waiting for—” She cut off abruptly, but Ory knew the tone. He'd heard it often in the beginning. It was the tone of someone who'd refused to give up a hope she shouldn't have anymore. “We've heard a lot of stories,” she finally continued. “A lot of names.”

Ory thought of the ones he knew.
The One with a Middle But No Beginning. The One with No Eyes. The Stillmind.
“They're rumors,” he said. “Just a bunch of rumors.”

“But they're all about the same
place
,” the woman replied. “Whatever the names mean, they're all about someone or something in New Orleans. That can't mean nothing.”

That much was true. Whenever one of the names came up, almost always so too did the city. But
what
it meant, if anything at all—that was the part that mattered to Ory.

The woman cleared her throat. “Besides, we've heard rumors about D.C., too. Bad things are happening there. And it's spreading. We waited as long as we could.”

“Bad things?”

“I don't know what they are,” she said. “But the few people that have come through here, before they stopped coming altogether, they said it's bad. And they were saying the same names, and all heading for New Orleans. So that's what we're doing, too.”

Ory looked from person to person in the group. He was suddenly keenly aware of how many of them were studying him—his watch, his knife, his pack. Or perhaps they were just looking at his shadow. “You trust what they say?” He asked.

“I've been in this complex a long time,” she said. “You learn to watch, not to listen. I've ignored what they said and watched what they did. And it's what I told you—people are leaving. They're coming from Arlington and they're coming from D.C., and they're all going south, to Louisiana. Something's happening out there.”

“If the names are all real, I'm not sure I'd want to go.”

The woman shrugged. “Then don't. But I'd rather be running toward than away from something.” The others behind her nodded.

Ory tried to read her face for some kind of tell, but the woman looked earnest. She was tired, and too wise to hope for too much, but there was no lie there. Whatever the rumors were, that they existed and that people were heading for New Orleans, at least, was true.

“Then why are you still here?” he asked.

“We aren't,” she said. She rested the butt of the rifle gently on the ground. “We leave today. As soon as this one finishes his goddamn cigarette.”

The smoke trailed out between the tiny gaps in his teeth as the man beside her grinned. “Helps me remember,” he said.

They all waited in the silence as the man exhaled and put the roll of embers to his lips again. Against the cool deck, its tiny shadow f loated in midair, attached to nothing. After a last long drag, he pushed the remains into the ground and then placed his shoe slowly over it, snuffing the life out. It was time to go.

“How are you getting there?” Ory asked when they all looked at him again.

“We can't—” she started.

“No, I know. I didn't mean . . . I just meant, how are you getting there?”

The woman crossed her arms. “We've been saving. There are still cars that run if you look for them. Victor here was an engineer before everything went to shit. He calculated it for us. How much food, water, gas. We want to survive, but we want to travel light. We've been building our group for a year, and have just enough to get the twelve
of us there, no more. That's why I said you were too late,” she said, an explanation as an apology.

“There are only two of you,” the shadowless man with the blue eyes said. The wind pushed his pale yellow hair in front of his cold stare for a moment. “You'll travel fast as such a small unit.” His face was grimly determined. “Find a car. You'll make it.”

“I just . . .” Ory shook his head. He looked at the ground-floor unit closest to the pool that had obviously been theirs. There were bicycles propped up against the railings in the back, a grill chained to the wall, clothes hanging to dry. Here they were, sitting around the empty pool in the last warmish sun of the season, smoking cigarettes they had made themselves. It was almost a normal life. “You're leaving all this—you're going to go
out there
—for a rumor?”

“We have to,” the woman said. She looked at the shadowless man, and they watched each other for a long moment. “Or there won't be anything left anyway.”

IT WAS A LONG WAY BACK, BUT AS SOON AS ORY GOT AWAY
from Broad Street and was cutting through backyards again, it was quiet once more.

The older woman's name was Ursula, she'd said. Ursula. The first shadowed person Ory had met since the Forgetting took Arlington. And probably the last.

Ursula told him he was welcome to everything they'd left in their unit—which wasn't much, but it was still better than what he'd hoped to find at all. They had finished packing a few days ago, and were leaving what was there behind. “We'd rather you have it than anyone else, I guess,” she'd said. Ory scrounged around every corner and crack. There was no food, but in the end, he was dragging back to their shelter two of the bikes, four small knives that were still fairly sharp, a bottle of vinegar, three glass jars, and the curtains from every window. He knew the bikes were too cumbersome, but he took them anyway—one looked just like Max's old roadster, and he wanted to
see her face light up when she saw it. Maybe they could ride them around the grass outside the shelter once or twice, like the old days. By the time he finished packing and went back outside, the pool area was empty. They were already gone.

The return took longer, with such a heavy bag and guiding two bikes with a hand on each of their handlebars. It was later than usual—the sun had already almost disappeared beneath the horizon, and the last dying rays backlit everything into a dark shade of greenish-blue. Ory had to make good time to get home to Max by when he said he'd be there. He looked down between his boots as he stepped. His shadow lurched with him, slithering jaggedly over the overgrown lawns, fragmenting around tangled weeds. Still there.

They were crazy to leave Arlington,
he thought. Just when things had finally started to get quiet. Just when it was finally starting to get safe enough that he could walk around to the back of their shelter to check the game trap without fear, no longer needing to jump at every single little snap of a twig or rustle of leaves in the overgrowth. They'd finally gotten to a place where they were almost safe.

And honestly, now that he knew almost everyone with or without a shadow had emptied out of Arlington, and the only things left he'd have to contend with were the last straggling shadowless and the odd wild animal that had moved in from the lurching woods, it made Ory want to hole up in their shelter and stay even more. Maybe society had been nice before, but he wasn't sure it would be great again. Maybe after everything was settled there in New Orleans, after they'd figured out some way to control the place. Maybe years from now, he'd consider it. But with what was coming for Max, they couldn't move now. They needed to stay, and be safe, when the time came. Max would agree with him.

Ory had just about convinced himself that the last thought was true when a strange ripple in his shadow caught his gaze. But it wasn't his shadow, he realized—just as something heavy and metallic smashed into the back of his head.

THE BUZZING SLOWLY FADED. CONFETTI GLIT
TERED AS IT
fell, everywhere, golden. Candles, sunset. Overhead, a wrought-iron elk, leaping over a wrought-iron cliff. The guests raised their party noisemakers to their lips again and blew.

“Champagne?” Max slipped her arm into Ory's. She shouted over the squealing chorus. The soft, brown coils of her hair spilled across the sleeve of his suit as she leaned to him. Lavender, warmed by the summer air. Bubbles popped against the crystal.

“Here they come!” someone cried. The band roared. Felix Mendelssohn's “Wedding March.” Another hand clapped his shoulder. “Best man! You're up!” Streamers exploded above.

“Ory?” Max asked. He turned to look at her—and everything froze. Things suddenly moved as if underwater. The piano echoed, time-stretched. Twirling slivers of gold imprisoned, floating in midair. He loved her so much. “Ory?”

Ory's eyes opened. Everything was gone. The music, the sound. The world was black. He was blind.

He felt the cool, wet grass beneath him then. No. He wasn't blind. It was just night. Then he knew his pack was gone.

Of course. That and the supplies were what he'd been attacked for. He shivered at the absence of it against his back. Naked, as if the clothes were stripped off him. The blackness blurred, and he realized he was crying. All gone. His knife, his watch, the canteen, his first-aid kit, the flashlight. His pack. His
pack
. Every precious thing it had taken so long to collect. Everything that kept him alive when he scouted. All gone. Ory clutched at the shoulder straps for comfort as he hugged himself, realized they weren't there either anymore, and started to cry harder.

When the strangled sobs finally subsided, he sat up as cautiously as he could. His head was pounding. Everything else was numb. He couldn't tell if he was injured anywhere below his neck yet. His fingers dabbed at the back of his skull and came away warm and wet. He couldn't see it in the darkness, but it felt like blood.
That's not
good,
he thought vaguely. Then he pitched over and vomited onto the grass.

MINUTES OR HOURS LATER, ORY WAS SHAKILY ON HIS FEET.
There was no way to tell what time it was. It was just dark. So dark he could barely see his hand in front of his face, even with the moon out. Night now was not like night before, navigable in the vague, faint haze of streetlights. Night now was oblivion.

Was it a shadowless that had knocked him out, ripped his pack off his back, and sprinted away? he wondered. Or a shadowed survivor like himself, who had been stalking him since he entered Broad Street? A chill shuddered through his clammy body. Was it the group he'd just met? They were about to set off on a dangerous journey. They'd seen his hunting knife, his backpack. They had plenty of supplies, but why not have a few more? He tried to picture Ursula circling back, her buzzed hair, her solemn face, creeping calmly up behind him, the butt of her gun raised with grim determination. Would she have done it, knowing he had a shadowless of his own to take care of?

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