Read The Book of M Online

Authors: Peng Shepherd

The Book of M (4 page)

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Max,
Ory thought then. He took a few faltering steps. There was no point in wondering who'd gotten the drop on him. It didn't matter now. His pack was gone, and the bicycle he wanted to give her, but he was alive. And so was Max. And she'd be panicked out of her mind by now. Ory had never been this late before, ever. Not even the first time he went out and almost got killed, and then got lost trying to get home. He wanted to sit down and close his eyes again. Instead, he kept walking.

HOW HE MADE IT TO THE SHELTER WAS HAZY. HE MUST HAVE
retraced his steps from memory, able to navigate the demolished neighborhoods even in darkness. Once or twice he thought he heard something rustling in the bushes nearby, but he was too dizzy to spot it, and in no shape to fight it anyway. It was almost as bad as death to lose that pack, everything he'd had in it, but he might not have
made it back at all in his condition if he'd been carrying all that extra weight.

Suddenly he was on the ground floor of the shelter. He'd made it. He leaned over and vomited again, and then almost fell into it.

Just two floors to go, and he'd be home.
Please let her still remember how to clean a wound,
Ory thought.
Please let her still remember everything right now.
Tomorrow he could face it, but not now. If he opened the door and it was the moment that Max had forgotten who he was, in his current state Ory doubted he could string together a coherent sentence at all, much less convince her they'd been married for the past five years, and he went out and got himself almost killed like this every week. At least she wouldn't remember that he'd had a pack to lose.

Ory climbed the stairs slowly, leaning against the wall as he ascended to stop the world from spinning. The back of his head felt freshly wet. He'd need Max to check it to make sure it didn't need stitches. He grimaced as he imagined the possibility. Her having to shave a patch in the back with their last dull disposable razor, the piercing pop of one of her sewing needles through the skin, over and over, a sensation he knew far too well by now. The back of his scalp tingled in reluctant anticipation.
Just don't fall asleep,
Ory thought dimly when he reached their door. He'd read that somewhere once—if you had a concussion, you shouldn't go to sleep. Otherwise you might never wake up. That was all he wanted now, though. To curl up with Max and close his eyes until everything didn't blur and tilt.

But as soon as he put his key into the tumbler and started to turn it, everything snapped into humming, crystallized focus.

The door was unlocked.

No.

No, no, no.

Ory shoved the door open and ran inside before he could think about it for another second. Before the terror of all the horrible things that could have happened to her—bandits, robbers, wild animals, her memory—could overwhelm him.
Please don't let something have
happened to her in the hours I was gone,
he prayed. Please don't let it be that if he hadn't gone to Broad Street, if he'd only been home on time, he could have caught her before she forgot. “Max!” he screamed, and tore across the living room to the kitchenette, then the bedroom, then the bathroom, and then farther out, down other halls, into other rooms, searching every inch of the shelter. “Max!
Max! MAX!

She was gone.

WAIT, LET ME TURN IT ON . . . OKAY, SAY IT
NOW.


BLUE
.”

FIFTY-TWO.

Mahnaz Ahmadi

NAZ DREAMED OFTEN ABOUT THE NIGHT IT ALL BEGAN. THERE
was just so much joy, so much wonder. No one knew then what the shadowlessness would lead to. Even when she dreamed about it now, now that she'd seen what it all became, the dream still never turned into a nightmare. She didn't know what that meant. Maybe it didn't mean anything at all.

Naz, her coach, and her teammates were celebrating the approval of her green card that evening. They'd just found out the paperwork had gone through, and she was officially allowed to stay in the United States forever, to keep training. It sounded silly, because tryouts weren't even for another three years, but somehow the green card made it all real for her. She might someday become the first Iranian to medal in archery at the Olympics. She might even have a shot at
gold.

They were all gathered around the couch in her apartment's living room in Boston, her coach leaning over the coffee table to uncork a bottle of wine. Two of her teammates had gotten a banner printed that read,
Congrats, Naz! Olympics, watch out!
and another that said,
Bull's-eye!
and hung them on the wall right above the case where she stored her competition bow.

She'd mostly tuned out the vague blinks of color coming from the TV as they laughed, drinking and snacking on a cheese plate and a cake she had baked, but something caught her eye. A red news ticker at the top of the screen flashed:
BREAKING NEWS
. That's when she first heard the name Hemu Joshi.

There was an annual festival that day in India, so the local news crews were already out in the bigger cities, including Pune; they'd been on Hemu for all of seven minutes before someone working for
an international station caught sight of their live feeds. Everything exploded.

Within six hours, it was on every channel and website in the United States, and crews from every country were touching down in Mumbai and frantically renting cars by the dozen to drive three hours away to the outdoor spice market in Pune—Mandai, the locals called it—in a span of time that seemed impossibly short for a transatlantic flight. Naz, her coach, and her teammates all stared transfixed at the screen, unable to look away.

At the time, none of them knew that they actually should have been terrified. Instead, they were fascinated. Obsessed. And Hemu obliged them. He stood gamely in the street of Mandai's largest aisle for those first three days, giving demonstrations for curious passersby. No matter how many times he did it, it never got old. Naz could watch him for twelve hours straight, with breaks only to microwave food and bring it back to the couch or go to the bathroom.

First he would smile and say something, to prove he was real and that it was live, not a tape being looped. Then he'd hold out his hand, or stand on one foot and dangle the other one in the air. The street children who had been haunting Hemu like little ghosts since the first moment would giggle and run circles around him. Photojournalists had a heyday with those shots. News sites were filled with vibrant images of the kids playing with him, laughing, dust swirling around them, the oranges and purples of the open-air spice stalls throbbing with such rich color that it made Naz squint.

Fortune-tellers made their way in rickshaws and on bicycles from every corner of the city to look upon this new wonder. Cripples were carried to Hemu by their relatives as if he could somehow cure them. Fathers were in the street, shouting at him and waving pictures of their daughters. By the end of the first day, Hemu had sixty-two marriage proposals, all from extremely wealthy families. There was a picture of Hemu's mother, a sturdy old woman with hair still as ink black as his own, trying to hold all of the photos of prospective
brides being pressed upon them. She'd pulled down the shoulder sash of her sari to use it like a makeshift basket, but there were so many pictures that they overflowed, the tiny faces of so many beautiful young women escaping her arms like dragonflies, flitting away down the crowded street.

The day before, Hemu had been a junior customer service representative at a call center for a U.S. cell phone company, and a second-string amateur cricket player for the Maharashtra team. A glorified benchwarmer. He'd batted once in the last fifty games, if that. Now he was almost godlike, something out of a fairy tale or a science fiction film. The world was captivated.

Hemu Joshi was the first person to lose his shadow.

WHEN NAZ AND HER LITTLE SISTER, ROJAN, WERE KIDS IN
Tehran, the year before their father died, he bought them a little telescope for one of their birthdays, to take up to the roof of their apartment building to try to spot constellations. The girls both went every night, but for different reasons. In truth, Naz could have cared less about it. She was already old enough to be allowed into the specialized sports section of the gymnasium after school, where the bows were kept. She helped drag the heavy metal instrument up the stairs as soon as darkness fell because Rojan cared. Because she had never seen her little sister so spellbound. Astronomy had become Rojan's version of Naz's archery. So every night Naz grabbed one end of the telescope and helped Rojan edge up the dark stairwell.

The rest of the family used to joke that those two things never really seemed to go together, archery and astronomy. To Naz there seemed to be a connection, though. The dark sky, the stars. The white gold of the sun. Her arrow arcing through the air beneath them. She wanted to watch Rojan watch the stars forever. But when Naz won nationals at the age of twenty-one, and the man who would become her coach called from faraway Boston, his English fast and whining and almost impossible for them to understand,
and she heard his offer—athlete visa, sponsorship, the Olympics in a few years . . .

After Naz moved to Boston, she went back home only once. That was the last time she saw her sister. She hadn't meant to mention her first American boyfriend to her mother, or dating at all. It had just slipped out. But then in the heat of the ensuing argument, she spitefully told the old woman everything about him—and the ones after.

She wasn't welcome in the house anymore after that. Her mother swore she'd never speak to Naz again. Naz swore the same. She left that night and went to visit Rojan at her university, where she was studying—Naz's heart swelled for her—astronomy. She'd managed to win a full scholarship. The next evening, they sneaked into Rojan's lab to see her research. By then Rojan knew far more than Naz did about the sky, but Naz followed as best she could. She'd remember forever the stolen looks through the telescopes she shared with her—the glow of distant planets, the streaks as comets shot by.

Naz often wondered now what happened to all of them. The telescopes. It would be strange to find them again someday, if any of them were still standing in this new world changed. Survivors would come upon them in their silent domed houses and look through their tiny glass eyepieces and think they were magic. Sometimes science seemed like magic. To watch Hemu Joshi live and breathe without his shadow was like watching magic.

There were attempts to turn his mystery into science, of course. And actually, there
was
some science to it. It was an obscure astronomy fact, but Naz had learned it from her sister. It turned out that actually, in a few countries, shadows disappearing happened every single year on a specific date.

It sounded impossible, but it was just physics. It had to do with the angle of the sun and the seasons—the lands between the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn, and sometime in late spring to early summer, to be exact. “No matter where you live, you always think of the sun
as directly above you at noon each day, but that isn't actually true,” Rojan had explained to her once, when she still lived in Tehran. Naz had tried to explain it to her coach and teammates as they watched Hemu on TV—the looks on their faces had made her laugh. But it was true. The earth was too big and too curved. Even though it looked like it, the sun was actually never
exactly
overhead. Except in India, on a certain day in mid-May.

Or as the locals called it, Zero Shadow Day.

The most insane, unbelievable thing, and it happened every year. Rojan had always wanted to visit. Zero Shadow Day had become a small festival there over the decades, celebrated on successive days as the earth tilted each dawn to position a different city directly under the sun—complete with basic astronomy lessons, parades, and kite flying. Every year just before noon, huge crowds would flock to open squares in the markets to wait for the moment that the sun was so exactly poised above them that their shadows would disappear for a few stunning seconds. Teachers encouraged kids to place various objects in the street—flashlights, basketballs, cricket bats—to see if they could outsmart the sun. They never could. Under the rolling hum of hand drums and sitars, as the earth and sun became perfectly aligned, all the shadows in the city and beneath the people slowly would shrink to tiny little dark specks on the ground, vanish, and then come back as the earth rotated on and away. Always.

A perfectly scientific explanation.

There just wasn't any scientific explanation as to why after that brief window, everyone else who was outdoors on that day watched the dark shape of themselves flicker back into form from the tips of their heels, while Hemu Joshi stayed shadowless and free. No explanation but magic.

So for three magical days, the entire world watched Hemu Joshi dance around untethered to the earth, captivated by the un-understandable beauty of it. Magic. Flights and hotels were monstrously overbooked, people were sleeping in restaurants and on the
streets, television channels played his clips endlessly, poetry was written about him. He even appeared to Naz in her dreams. Scientists went wild, but not a single one could prove exactly what was going on. And the day after Hemu's shadow disappeared, news broke that it had also happened to a group of eightysomething people in Mumbai during the celebration of their own successive Zero Shadow Day festival. The news started calling them the Angels of Mumbai. It didn't sound silly at all. And then a day after that, the third day, it happened to a group of fifteen in Ahmednagar, and a group of twelve in Nashik . . .

The reports kept coming in late into that third evening, as more and more scattered cases across the state of Maharashtra were reported, family after family, village after village. It was like watching a miracle. When she heard about the Angels of Mumbai, Naz actually thought that they were all about to transcend into some kind of higher existence. And as ridiculous as that kind of statement sounded when uttered out loud, the world was so in awe that she didn't feel self-conscious. Not even a little. She was standing wrapped in a towel in her bathroom, dripping everywhere, waving her arms around and declaring it to one of her teammates and the toilet while she brushed her teeth, and she didn't feel silly or dramatic in the slightest. That's how taken the world was with it.

Then on the fourth day, it all started to go horribly wrong.

HEMU JOSHI HAD PROBABLY BEEN FORGETTING THINGS SINCE
the first moment of Zero Shadow Day, but it wasn't apparent until the morning of that fourth day.

The morning that the bad news broke, Naz got up early and turned on the TV so she could watch Hemu while she fried some eggs for breakfast. The sizzle from the skillet garbled the reporter's voice-over, but the view was familiar. Since Zero Shadow Day, Hemu had been living exactly where he was first spotted—outdoors in the center of the Mandai market—disappearing only to quickly change clothes or go to the bathroom. There had been such a desperate outcry on that
first night when he tried to go home to sleep that his two brothers had given in and dragged some bedding out and down the crowded, winding streets to him. Now the three of them camped in the center of the breezy, fluttering textiles aisle. By the middle of that first night, so many people had brought them blankets and other offerings of fruit and silk that their little patch of dusty concrete looked like some kind of ridiculous sultan's love chamber.

Something was strange, though. Since Naz had turned on the TV, only Hemu's brothers had been on the screen, instead of Hemu. She glanced away to give the eggs a good push with her spatula, and when she turned back, she realized they looked concerned this time, not friendly. One of them was shouting, “No cameras!” The other brother reached toward the cameraman, and the screen went dark as his hand grabbed the lens and yanked it down toward the ground.

“What you just saw was our most recent footage of Vinay and Rahul Joshi, Hemu Joshi's brothers, taken just minutes ago.” The screen abruptly cut back to a sharp-shouldered, severe news anchor. “Since five this morning India Standard Time, Joshi's family has refused the media access to Joshi after he was found wandering through the business district of Pune, apparently disoriented and—”

Naz turned off the burner, leaving the eggs half-done and still translucent in the pan, and went to get her laptop. By the time the yolks had hardened into a yellowy mess, she had pieced together what happened. When the news crews woke up and turned the cameras back on at dawn, they realized Hemu wasn't sleeping beside Vinay and Rahul anymore. They woke the brothers, and the two of them went home to see if Hemu was there, but he wasn't. A search was mounted, and that's when they found Hemu stumbling around the opposite end of the market, confused and agitated. He was shouting at the crowd that he didn't want to be followed and he was sick of the news crews, which was understandable. But then his brothers pushed to the front of the mass, and that's when the strangest thing happened: Hemu didn't recognize them at all.

Most of the news crews were still obsessed with getting a shot of Hemu, the man who had captured the attention of billions. But there was a second-rate team from some American gossip channel in Nashik—attempting to drum up interest in a group of twelve children they were trying and failing to dub the Nashik Cherubs, a terrible rip-off of the Angels of Mumbai—who turned this from a curiosity to a tragedy.

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