Read The Book of M Online

Authors: Peng Shepherd

The Book of M (30 page)

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“Yeah,” the old man gasped. “Someone's out there?”

“Don't—” Marie hissed across the room. “Don't open it.”

Shadowed scavengers? More shadowless? The storm, throwing debris?
The amnesiac watched the locks rattle, praying they would hold. Outside, the wind was howling, strong enough that he could hear the echoes of it through the concrete walls.

The door banged again. “Please!” someone cried, a woman's voice. “Please! Is someone there? Help me! The storm—” The wind swallowed whatever she said after that.

“Trappers,” Downtown said. “Or kidlings
.
Or could be deathkites circling her. We can't be sure.”

Curly was next to him. “We're out of time.”

They're right,
he thought.
Just go. Keep the others safe.
That was his job, what he had promised Dr. Zadeh he would do. To keep them together, to watch over them all, and to help them remember as long as he could. He listened to the woman outside pound her fists on the door and wail. The trees were likely bent sideways by now, everything left in the city leaning as if being devoured by a giant vacuum in the
sky. The trappers used all manner of bait—children, women, puppies they'd stolen from a street dog. Kidlings didn't use bait at all. They were so terrible, they didn't have to. The amnesiac had watched the old man moan in the bus station for four hours yesterday before he was sure no one had planted him there. He couldn't give this woman the same test—she'd be ripped away by the raging wind in far less time. But he couldn't just leave her to die, either.

“I'm sorry!” he finally yelled. “We can't open the door. Go somewhere else while you still have time!”

“Hello?” she screamed. The door rattled as she hit her fists against it. “Dr. Zadeh, is that you?”

Dr. Zadeh.

They all took a step back. The amnesiac looked at Marie, who now was staring suspiciously at the door. Without the signs on the building any longer, there was only one explanation—whoever knew this had been Dr. Zadeh's clinic had known him personally.

“What now?” Marie whispered.

“I don't know,” the amnesiac said. He shrugged the leather bag until the straps slid off his arms and it plopped to the ground, and then carefully laid the old man over Curly's back—he couldn't fight holding it all. He motioned for Marie to give him her knife.

“Are we really doing this?” she asked.

“Are you shadowless?” the amnesiac called at the door, gripping the blade as tightly as he could.

“No—I have a shadow! I have a shadow!” The woman outside scraped desperately at the wood as the wind shrieked. “Let me in!”

“Then what's your name?” he yelled. Not that the amnesiac would remember anyone from more than just a few weeks before the Forgetting, but it was all he could think of. “What's your name? If you still have your shadow, you should remember your name—”

She shouted her answer frantically. He couldn't hear the first word through the wind, but the second one he finally caught as she screamed it over and over. “Avanthikar!” she cried. “Avanthikar!”

He didn't realize what he had done until it was over. He was across the room, at the locks. He opened the door, reached out into the cold, slicing rain, grabbed the ragged thing hunched against the wind, and yanked it inside in one motion. Marie's torch snarled, angry at being whipped by the wet air. The amnesiac pressed the knife down on his captive before she could recover.

“Prove it,” he said. “I'm sorry, but you have to prove it. I have people I have to protect.”

“You,” she stammered. The shadowless were shouting now, some excited, some terrified. It was too dark to see more than the lines on the stranger's dirty face, her bony hands, the wisp of her shadow pinned beneath her on the floor.

“Prove it,” the amnesiac said again. “How did he die?” Not Dr. Zadeh, but the other. The other man they both had known and loved.

The woman looked at him for a long moment, trying to understand the words through the knife, the wind, the drowning rain. Then all of her memories caught up, from whatever distance they'd had to travel to reach her again.

“Peanut butter,” she finally said.

TRANSCENDENCE DOESN'T ASK US QUESTIONS ANY
MORE NOW
that Lucius has joined them. They have what they want. A god, a mascot. I wonder how long it'll take them to realize that Lucius can't inflict his own curse upon them any more effectively than any of their past prisoners were able to, despite his willingness to try. I wonder how long it'll take Lucius to realize there must have been others before him, but that they aren't here now.

The morning after he left us, I woke to the sound of metal scraping, then a loud thud. My eyes snapped open to see everyone lying in a tangled heap on the far side of the cage.

“You're up,” Ursula said when she saw me. “Help us pull.”

Victor's belt was wrapped around one of the bars, its leather tail now dangling limply as it waited for them to grab on again. “This is our plan to escape?” I asked as I climbed to my feet.

“The point of force just needs to be more concentrated and the power greater,” Ursula said. “This is a lot better than each of us pulling on a different bar with only our hands.”

“If the belt holds,” Ysabelle added. As they passed our room on patrol, the soldiers watched us warily as we all took hold of the belt again. They didn't seem to think it was going to work, but they knew enough to know that when shadowless got angry, sometimes other unintended things could happen.

“Go!” Ursula cried. We all pulled, arms burning. The leather stretched. “More! . . . More! . . .”

“Mother
fucker!
” Victor cried when the belt slipped and we all
collapsed on top of him at full force. “This is as pointless as everything else we've tried,” he gasped.

“He's right,” the woman in white said suddenly. I turned to see her floating through the main door to the abandoned church.

“Are you here to give us breakfast or to proselytize?” Ursula asked her. “Because we're only interested in one of those things.”

The woman stopped just in front of the cage. “I want to spare you the wasted effort. You'll never be able to bend the bars.” She bowed her head reverently. “The Great One remembered long ago that they could never be destroyed. Nothing on earth can break them.”

As she said it, I suddenly knew it was true. I'd been able to feel it the moment we were locked inside—we all had, even though we'd refused to admit it to one another—but hadn't been able to describe it. The feeling that the bars were somehow more than bars. Now that she'd said it, I understood what it was. It was as if they were both the thing itself and the name for it. Perhaps simple poles of metal could be bent with enough force, but how would a person break an “unbreakable bar”?

Ursula must have known it too, but she refused to show it. “The Great One. That's what you call Lucius now?” she scoffed.

“Oh, no,” the woman said. “The Great One was far more powerful. A queen among shadowless. She was the first we found. What we all aspire to be.”

“Is that so?” Ursula asked. “A shame you have to refer to her in the past tense then.” She grinned. Trying to provoke her. “Did she kill herself in some stupid accident because she didn't remember anything, this all-powerful queen of yours? Or did she commit suicide, to escape all of you?”

The white woman's eyes narrowed, but she didn't say anything at first.
Open the door,
I prayed.
Open the door and reach for Ursula. You'll never get it closed again.

But she didn't. She finally looked away, and crouched down until
her white layers rippled out into a small ivory lake. She looked at Zachary, who was still huddled on the ground, one sore arm from the fall tucked against his chest. “Are you all right?” she asked. She reached out and touched the back of his free hand softly. For once, he let her. He looked at her fingers, then slowly up at her face, into her eyes. “You have great power,” she whispered to him, awed. “You've almost transcended.”

Ursula finally took a step toward her. “Enough,” she said. “He's fine.”

The woman put her palms up, and stood. “He's very important to you, isn't he?” she asked. Ursula didn't say anything. “He's important to us, too.”

“Hah,” Ursula finally spat.

The woman in white looked at Zachary again. “You don't have to fight,” she said to him, almost as if praying. “You can choose to stop struggling. You're safe here. This is your home.”

“This is not our home,” I said.

“And New Orleans is?” The woman's eyes wrinkled above her veil. “They are bandits there, nothing more.”

“How do you know—” I started, but Ursula cut me off.

“Lucius,” she said simply.

Of course they had asked him. He'd told them everything. Our journey, our hopes.

“He did it out of concern for you,” the woman in white said. “You should know—whatever you think is there, you've been misled.”

“Don't listen,” Ursula said to all of us. “She has no idea. She's lying.”

The woman rose. “Someday very soon you'll be able to see.”

“You have no idea how long we can hang on,” Ursula said.

“But I do.” She looked down almost hesitantly, as if she didn't want to say what followed. “I've been instructed to stop feeding you.”

“What?” Victor roared. The lion tattoo on his arm looked just as angry as he was. “You're just going to
starve us to death
? What kind of people are you?”

“You won't starve. We won't let that happen,” the woman said. “You'll join us before you do.”

Ursula glared at her in silence. Transcendence were not shadowless, but they'd captured enough of us to know how the pull worked. How much faster fear or suffering made the forgetting come. It was a foolproof plan: first be kind, offer food and protection from the outside world in the hopes that we might join them voluntarily—but if that fails, just wait until we forget they were the ones who put us in this cage in the first place. Then they would be our rescuers, not our captors.

The woman in white finally met our eyes again. “Whether now or later, we'll welcome you all the same.”

Victor threw the remains of his cigarette carton after her as she turned to leave, disgusted. The rest of us watched the guards remove the belt from the bars without protest. It wasn't worth the risk of injury or of accidentally forgetting something in the struggle. It was useless anyway.

“Give me until dawn,” Ursula said at last, once things had calmed down.

“To what?” Ysabelle asked. “We can't break the cage. We've tried so many times already, and it's never even creaked once.” She ran her hands through her pale hair. “I don't know if I have until dawn,” she whispered. “I don't know if I can hang on that long anymore. And even if we do get out, what if that woman is right? What if there is no New Orleans after all, and we've been heading for nothing all this time?”

“Stop,” Ursula said. “There
is
a New Orleans. And we
are
going there.”

“Really?” I snapped, before I could stop myself.

It was the first time I'd gone against her. It broke something in the rest of us. We began to fight, everyone yelling at everyone else.

Ursula turned to me in the chaos. Both of us looked on the verge of crying. “It's going to be all right,” she said gently over the roar.

But it's
not
going to be all right, is it, Ory? Because if there isn't a New Orleans, or if we get there and it's not what we hope it is, then it would really be over. Everything I've done, the hope I've finally started to feel, all of it would be for nothing. I won't ever—there's no chance I—shit, Ory. Shit. I'm crying. I don't want you to hear me like this.

I thought it was for the best, my love. Leaving home. You would know that by now if you could listen. I didn't want you to see me this way. I didn't want you to have to live with whatever was left. And if the worst thing happened, if I forgot you, I didn't want to be the reason that you died or disappeared—or turned into something that wasn't you. I
couldn't
be the reason. You would've done the same thing for me, and you know it.

When the arguing and crying had finally died away, Ursula came and sat by me in the corner of the cage.

“Ory. His name is Ory,” I whispered.

“I know,” she said. She nodded her chin toward where the recorder was hidden in my shirt.

“I'm afraid to forget him,” I admitted, ashamed.

“You won't,” Ursula insisted.

“How can you know that?”

“Because I
am
going to get us out of here,” she said firmly. “And I'm going to get you to New Orleans before it's too late. I don't know how, but I will. I promise.”

“But the woman is telling the truth, isn't she?” I asked. “That the cage can't be bent.”

“Yes,” Ursula finally said. “But it doesn't matter. We've been going about it all wrong.”

“What do you mean?”

She squeezed her hands around one of the bars, almost tenderly this time. “Maybe we don't need to open it to escape.”

I could see her sifting through what was left of her mind. Looking to see if she had the strength to do what she wanted—what she might give up if she succeeded. What we all might. Because even though Ursula was going to try and bear the brunt of whatever memories we might lose when she let the pull free to revolt against our captors, it was still going to take something from all of us. We wouldn't be listeners when she did it, but a chorus, because whatever she wanted to do, it would cost too much for her alone to pay the price. We would have to harmonize, because to sing all of it alone would destroy her.

Ursula looked at me again, eyes determined. “Just give me until dawn,” she said.

I didn't think I'd be able to sleep. I waited to see what would happen. But Ursula only sat quietly, eyes closed, as if in deep meditation. I kept expecting her to jump up and do something crazy, but she just kept sitting there, remembering, or trying not to. We were all already so exhausted, and without any food since the evening before, it was impossible to resist the numb cold of the cage's floor. I dozed, drifting a long time before I dreamed.

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